House of Commons
Wednesday 29 April 2009
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
My assessment of the devolution settlement is that the Labour-led Assembly Government are delivering real policies to underpin the lives of the people of Wales.
As a committed Unionist, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he believes that to make devolution work for all the people of Wales there needs to be constructive, open dialogue between Cardiff and Whitehall? In what ways can that dialogue genuinely be improved?
As a committed Unionist myself, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there should be constructive dialogue between Whitehall and Cardiff. That is accomplished in a number of formal ways, including regular meetings between me and the First Minister, and between Ministers and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, together with a dialogue between Members of Parliament and Assembly Members of all parties. It is vital that the people of Wales understand that the best way forward for the Welsh people is through a partnership between this Parliament, the Assembly in Cardiff, this Government and the Welsh Assembly Government.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s observations, particularly his emphasis on partnership. One of the key elements of the Government of Wales Act 2006 is the role of the Welsh Affairs Committee in pre-legislative scrutiny of legislative competence orders. We have worked effectively with colleagues in the Assembly, especially Ministers, and we are committed to increasing that participation and partnership. Does he agree?
Yes, I do, and I think that the work of the Welsh Affairs Committee is, in many ways, more significant following devolution than before it because there is a huge role to play, certainly in dealing with the LCOs—my hon. Friend’s Committee does a good job on that, I know—but also, as the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) said, in maintaining a dialogue between Members of Parliament and Assembly Members, particularly by way of scrutiny. The Welsh Affairs Committee does a great job and my hon. Friend does an outstanding job as its Chairman.
As a descendant of Owain Glyndwr and yet another proud Unionist, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he shares my concern at the taxpayer-funded All Wales Convention? It is going round demanding extra powers for the Welsh Assembly, which I and most of the Welsh people know will cost more money and inevitably lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom? What is he doing to ensure that the other side of the argument is put?
I do not think that I need do very much, as long as the hon. Gentleman remains the Member of Parliament for Monmouth. I am not a descendant of Owain Glyndwr, certainly not with a name such as mine, but I agree that the convention should be open to everybody in Wales to put their points of view. It is, in effect, testing the water. If the convention believes that a referendum is necessary, the people of Wales will decide. In the meantime, right across Wales, people have the opportunity to put the hon. Gentleman’s point of view, and indeed the opposite.
Speaking as a Euro Unionist, not a British Unionist, and as a supporter of Owain Glyndwr, but also not as a descendant of his, and in the spirit of partnership between the nations of these islands, what does the Secretary of State think of my party’s proposal that each of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom should take its turn in nominating the UK representative as commissioner in the European Commission?
Not much, really, but I do think that there is a case for Assembly and Scottish Government Ministers sharing with British Government Ministers representation at meetings in Brussels, Strasbourg and elsewhere. That has happened over the years and there is an important role to be played. However, in my view, only the sovereign state Government is able to nominate for the role of commissioner.
May I add that I agree with the Secretary of State’s remarks on the previous question?
The reality of the relationship between Westminster and Cardiff Bay is not quite as cosy as the first two questions perhaps suggested. Now he has had a chance to work with the LCO process, and bearing in mind the sudden rush of LCOs coming through, is he entirely happy with the procedures: the scrutiny process, which affects the Welsh Affairs Committee’s work load by giving it a lot of heavy work; and the public and political intervention from the Assembly’s Presiding Officer, or does the system need improving?
I think that the system needs monitoring all the time, and that there is room for improvement all the time. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and members of the Welsh Affairs Committee are considering, for example, how to improve the speed with which LCOs are dealt with. I commend them for that. I note the hon. Lady’s comments about the role of the Presiding Officer, and I will pass on her views when I next meet him.
Cross-border Health Services
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Assembly Government on such matters. The discussions include the new cross-border protocol for health care services of Wales, which, I am pleased to say, has been agreed between the Welsh Assembly Government and the UK Government.
I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. He will be aware of the recent Welsh Affairs Committee report on cross-border health policy, to which he referred in his preliminary comments. He will also be aware that there should be clinical excellence for all those who wish to have medical treatment, as close as possible to their homes. Does he acknowledge that that would mean Welsh patients ending up having medical treatment in English hospitals? Will he do all that he can to urge the Welsh Health Minister to abandon her so-called in-country policy, which is causing so much distress to neurosurgery patients in Wales?
The hon. Gentleman is correct in referring to the Welsh Affairs Committee interim report on the provision of cross-border health services in Wales. We have considered that important report, and the Department of Health will respond to all its points in due course. It is important to recognise, however, that devolution is about addressing particular needs. The Welsh Assembly Government have clearly defined and articulated their policy, and we are seeing consistent and radical improvements in the health care of the people of Wales. Obviously, given the unique situation with regard to the Welsh-English border, a close working relationship is needed. I am absolutely confident that the protocol that is now in place and is being implemented will ensure effective co-operation and cross-border flow to the benefit of English and Welsh patients.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important question. Only yesterday, I had a telephone conversation with Edwina Hart, the Welsh Assembly Government Health Minister, and I am absolutely confident that the greatest co-operation is taking place between central Government and the Welsh Assembly Government. I am pleased that she will make a statement to the Welsh Assembly this afternoon outlining her measures in some detail. She is participating fully in Cobra in London, and I am told that £59 million has been earmarked in Wales for effective preparation and response.
I very much welcome the protocol and agreement reached between the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department of Health on such important cost and funding issues. Does my hon. Friend agree that, prompted by the Welsh Affairs Committee’s inquiry into health and cross-border issues, it is now essential to make it a principle that access by Welsh patients and my constituents to English hospitals must be on the basis of clinical need, not geography? Is it not also important that Welsh Members of Parliament have the opportunity to discuss those issues in this House? That would be under threat if the Tories’ English-only policy were to come into effect.
My hon. Friend makes important points, and I congratulate him on his excellent work to ensure an effective relationship between England and Wales on the important matter of the health service. He stresses rightly that we have a national health service in this country covering both sides of Offa’s dyke, although devolution means that there is a variation on that. The principle of clinical need is cardinal to the operation of the health service in both our countries. I also agree strongly that ongoing dialogue on cross-border health is very important. It is vital that Welsh MPs, in the number that there are, contribute effectively to that debate. We would strongly oppose any attempt, suggestion or move to reduce the number of Welsh MPs, particularly with regard to this important issue.
The Minister referred to the Select Committee report and concerns about the lack of co-ordination between the Department of Health in London and the Welsh Assembly Government, and, in particular, the strains that the previous arrangements placed on clinicians and patients. Is he satisfied that the new protocol, which amounts to an interim protocol, is robust enough and, crucially, transparent enough to assuage the concerns of many of my constituents—and doubtless his—who seek treatment in Gobowen, Frenchay, Hereford and elsewhere? A lot of early misinformation was provided about cross-border health flows.
A revised cross-border protocol for health services has been agreed with the health service in Wales and the Department of Health here in London. It has rightly taken a long time to formulate, because the issue is far from straightforward and both parties wanted to be absolutely certain they were taking the best possible approach. I believe that that is what is now contained in the cross-border protocol, which has been well received. I am confident that it will be effective for patients in Wales and England.
The Minister will be aware of the recent media attention on the concerns expressed by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign over the lack of specialist care in Wales for people with neuromuscular conditions and their difficulty in obtaining treatment in England. The MDC has argued strongly for the establishment of a UK-wide national commissioning group for specialist diagnostic services. Is he willing to approach the Secretary of State for Health to explore the possibility of establishing such a service, which would very much benefit the people of Wales and would be very much welcomed by his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue with regard to muscular dystrophy. By definition, the issue is a cross-border one, and I would of course be more than happy to have discussions with the Department of Health and with Edwina Hart, the Welsh Assembly Government Health Minister. One of the positive things over the past few months has been a growing partnership between health services. It is true that things can be done differently—that is what devolution is all about—but it is essential that in these post-devolution times we have a constructive dialogue at all times. I shall ensure that this issue is taken forward, as he suggested.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of issues relating to the former Welsh coalfields. He and I warmly welcome the announcement made on 15 April by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. From this summer, sufferers of miners’ knee will be able to apply for industrial injuries disablement benefit.
Following the announcement, to which my hon. Friend has just referred, that miners who suffer from beat knee will be compensated, the National Union of Mineworkers in south Wales is warning that some solicitors are trying to cash in by persuading miners that they have to go through them to make a claim. That is untrue, so what are the Government doing to protect claimants from those seeking to make another fast buck on the back of sick miners?
My right hon. Friend raises an extremely important point, to which the NUM in south Wales has alerted MPs; we view with some concern the fact that certain solicitors—one in particular—have written to recipients of vibration white finger compensation and other compensation and offered their services. They are perfectly entitled to do that, but it is very important to recognise that there is no need for claimants to operate through a solicitor, because they can go directly to the Department for Work and Pensions. We must ensure that that message is made crystal clear to all people who have received vibration white finger and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease compensation.
Slate quarry workers have received compensation for dust diseases since legislation brought in by the previous Labour Government in 1979. However, although coal miners have received compensation for emphysema, bronchitis and now for knee injury, slate quarry workers have not. Will the Minister examine this issue with a view to addressing what some people see as an anomaly and what some, myself included, see as an injustice?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue, and he accurately points out that it was a Labour Government who introduced this compensatory measure. Of course, as we all realise, these processes can be extremely complicated and can contain anomalies and gaps. I give a commitment that we will do everything we can to ensure that there is maximum coverage for everybody who desires and is in need of the compensation that is intended.
Further to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), I can tell the Minister that this Sunday a firm of solicitors from Cardiff was touting for business in Grimethorpe working men’s club in my constituency to try to get miners to pay £300 up front for its services in claiming for miners’ knee. Will the Minister join me in frowning on that practice, and will he raise the issue with the Law Society to try to outlaw it?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments, which show that this issue extends way beyond Wales. Solicitors can tout for business in that way, but it is important to recognise that charging £300 or even £345—as in a case that I know of—to expedite a claim is morally wrong, and it is incumbent on all of us to ensure that our constituents know that Members of Parliament will do everything they can to expedite claims and will forward claims to the Department for Work and Pensions, and that no charge will be made.
Last week’s Budget announced a further employment package, building on steps taken in the pre-Budget report to respond to rising unemployment, including an extra £1.7 billion for Jobcentre Plus.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Five years of jobcentre closures and staff cuts have meant that Wales now has 144 jobseekers for every personal adviser, which is nearly double the figure a year ago and means that each adviser has only about 15 minutes a week to help each person into work. Given that unemployment in Wales is likely to rise by a further 50 per cent. over the next year, will the Secretary of State speak to his Cabinet colleagues to ensure that Jobcentre Plus has people in place with enough time to help those who are unemployed find work?
Of course I will, but the hon. Lady will accept that a percentage of that £1.7 billion for Jobcentre Plus will go to Wales, and the whole purpose of that spending will be to do the sort of things that she mentioned, with proper advice and sufficient time to talk to people who come to Jobcentre Plus about their own particular difficulties.
My right hon. Friend will recall the devastation that was visited on communities in west Wales and the valleys during the 1980s and the early 1990s as a result of two Tory recessions. Does he agree that the policies that were followed then were wrong and left a lasting legacy that meant that under the Labour Government we qualified for special European aid? The way to get out of a recession is not to cut our way out, but to grow our way out.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. He will know that long-term unemployment was a scourge in the 1980s and 1990s, and that the Government cannot be an uninterested observer. Government, both in Cardiff and in London, must act, and that is the opposite of what the Conservatives stand for.
Further to the question by the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott), the Secretary of State will know that last year it was announced that 12,000 jobs would be lost in the offices of the Department for Work and Pensions, the equivalent of losing 200 offices. Some 33 towns in Wales are currently without offices. Given that a further £15 billion of cuts are on the way, how many more jobs will be lost in that sector in Wales?
Obviously we have to try to preserve all jobs, whether in the public or private sectors. The Government measures announced in the Budget include the money for Jobcentre Plus, the money for the under-25s in Wales and the measures taken over the last couple of months, and they are specifically designed to ensure that jobs are protected. Of course, we cannot avoid some job losses, because they are inevitable in a downturn such as this, but we have to do all that we can to ensure that other jobs are available—thousands of jobs are still vacant in Wales—for people to take.
This has not been an easy time for anybody seeking work, and we in Swansea, East have also faced challenges. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that the work that Jobcentre Plus has done is absolutely fantastic. I want to commend the work of our local Jobcentre Plus in Morriston. Will the Secretary of State ensure that publicity and promotion is made available, both for employers experiencing difficulties and for those seeking work, to promote the work of jobcentres?
Yes, of course I will ensure that that message is put across. My hon. Friend does a great deal for the people of Swansea in this regard. She will know, of course, that the Labour party conference met very successfully last weekend in Swansea. All the policies to which I have just referred also refer specifically to the problems faced by her constituents in Swansea, East.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the latest job loss figures from Wales are dire. Unemployment in my constituency has gone up by more than 100 per cent. in the past 12 months. On Friday, I was at my local Jobcentre Plus, which is doing valuable work, but will the Secretary of State say what additional support can be given to those new victims of the recession who need targeted and specialist support? They have a solid and continuous work history, and often a good education, and they might never have been inside a jobcentre in their lives. They need targeted support and they face a very bleak set of circumstances right now.
I quite understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. If he follows the proceedings of the Budget last week and the announcements that followed, he will see that some 7,500 new jobs for young people in Wales could be created by initiatives that the Government have taken over the past couple of days and the money that is going in. At the end of the day, the Government are tackling these issues in a manner that is entirely different from the non-policies of the Opposition.
What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Secretary of State for Defence about the Ministry of Defence’s policy of sustainable procurement in the defence technical college contract in St. Athan in my constituency? If that policy is adhered to, it will have a dramatic effect on unemployment in south Wales, with planning taking place next month and construction starting next summer.
My hon. Friend is aware that I am in constant contact with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, particularly on the subject of the defence training academy that is coming to my hon. Friend’s constituency. My hon. Friend has done a great job in this respect, and this is the biggest single public procurement project ever in Wales.
On 6 November, the Secretary of State announced that a £150 million investment fund to help businesses would shortly be operated through Finance Wales. The chief executive of Finance Wales said that the scheme had been planned for some time. Why did it take six months to launch it, why was it left until the Welsh Labour party conference to do so, and what does he say to the thousands of people who have lost their jobs in the meantime whose businesses might have been helped by that fund? Does “shortly” mean “when politically convenient”?
I think that the hon. Lady understands that much of the finance that goes into these schemes comes from Europe. That includes money for Finance Wales, and this week—she is aware of this, as she just made reference to it—£150 million of new money has come into Wales as a consequence. She asked what I would say to the people of Wales with regard to these issues of unemployment. I would say that her party was in government for 215 months, and that for 205 of those 215 months unemployment levels in Wales were higher than they are today in Welsh constituencies.
I am in regular contact with Welsh businesses and key stakeholders in Wales, not least at the all-Wales economic summits that I attend regularly.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and I welcome Government measures such as the exemption on business rates for vacant business properties and the additional time allowed to pay taxes. We still need to unblock bank lending. Will the Secretary of State say what he will do to achieve that in order to help enterprising people through these tough times?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the key to small business success is the unlocking of funds from the banks. In Swansea a few weeks ago, the all-Wales economic summit met leading bankers in Wales to encourage them to do precisely that. In addition, the new enterprise guarantee fund scheme in Wales has already paid out £8 million to help 90 Welsh firms. That is real action for people in Wales.
Heart of Wales Railway
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on a range of issues, including railways. I should like to pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) has done in campaigning to raise the profile of this extremely important railway line.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but does he agree that this beautiful railway route through Wales and England is not delivering to its full potential at the moment, especially in green tourism? In future, will the UK Government co-operate with the Welsh Assembly Government in developing a strategy to improve the line?
Co-operation on this issue is vital. I give a commitment that we in the Wales Office will ensure that there is maximum co-operation between the Welsh Assembly Government and the UK Government. However, I point out that the Welsh Assembly’s Rail Forward programme has set aside some £50 million for investment, which implements the political agreement that has been struck.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our deepest condolences to the family and friends of the soldier from 1st Battalion Welsh Guards who was killed in Afghanistan yesterday. All those who have lost their lives in conflict deserve our profound gratitude for their service, and we will never forget those who have shown such dedication to our country and to the people of Afghanistan.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the cases of swine flu that have been diagnosed at Monklands hospital. To reassure my constituents and many other people, will he tell us what plans are in place to deal with this very worrying problem?
In addition to the two members of the public in the Monklands area who have contracted swine flu and who I understand are getting better, the House will want to know that there are three further confirmed cases. One is a 12-year-old girl from Torbay, and the other two are adults, one from Birmingham and one from London. All of them travelled recently from Mexico and have mild symptoms. They are all receiving Tamiflu, the treatment that has been effective so far, and are responding well to it. The school in Torbay at which the 12-year-old is educated will close down for the time being, and all pupils will be offered the Tamiflu antiviral.
I believe that we are making the necessary preparations and taking the precautions that we need to take to prevent the incidence of the disease in this country. I can confirm that we have enhanced airport checks, and that we are advising people not to travel to Mexico unless it is necessary. We will continue to review the position, and at the same time we have decided to build up stocks of antivirals from 35 million doses to 50 million. We are ordering a great many more face masks, and we will send out public information to all citizens in this country. By Tuesday of next week, an information leaflet will be available for every family.
The World Health Organisation has said that we are one of the best prepared countries. We intend to keep it that way, and to do everything in our power to make sure that people are safe from this worldwide flu.
May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the soldier from the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, who was killed in Afghanistan yesterday? He died serving our country, and we should honour his memory.
The whole House will share the Prime Minister’s concern about the cases of swine flu and what he has just said, and the whole House will also welcome the steps that the Prime Minister and the Government are taking. May I ask a number of specific questions? First, may I ask about the national flu line? That was supposed to be up and running already, but instead we are currently told, I believe, that it will not be operational until the autumn. Given the importance of making sure that information is available for people, can the Prime Minister tell us what the Government are doing to speed that up?
Yes, I am very grateful for the opportunity to explain that, and to thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said about both our best wishes for those who are affected by the flu and the preparations that we are making to deal with the problems that arise from it. I can say about the flu line that interim arrangements are being made. We signed a contract with BT last year. It is not simply an information line; it is about the availability and distribution of antivirals to people in the country. If that is necessary, that will be done, and we have made arrangements so that that can be done, but of course over the longer term we want to create the flu line, which is to be brought into being when it is necessary. I have to say that the circumstances in which it would be used are not yet reached, and we hope that they will not be reached, but arrangements have been made. If I may say so, the Health Secretary will make a fuller statement to the House this evening about those very issues.
I am grateful for that answer. Clearly, everyone will be concerned that without a flu line, there is a danger that NHS Direct could be swamped.
There are two further issues on preparedness that I would like to ask about. First, the Prime Minister said that the Government are ordering more stocks of antivirals. Currently, those stocks cover half the population. The Government have accepted that it would be useful to have antivirals not just for treatment, but for prevention. He gave some figures earlier; could he tell us the time scale for getting up to those figures, and what percentage of the population would then be covered?
The second issue is about face masks; again, the Prime Minister mentioned it. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the shadow Secretary of State for Health, has, I believe, raised the matter 15 times in the last four years. The Health Secretary said on Monday that the Government have not yet done enough. Again, could we have a time scale on the issue of face masks as well?
I am grateful, again, for the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about this, because it allows me to explain to the public everything that is being done, and everything that we intend to do. As far as the antivirals are concerned, we are increasing our order from the 35 million that we now have to 50 million. These are brought into use, normally, only where symptoms of the flu are discovered, so we feel that we are well prepared at the moment, but it is right to increase the coverage of the population, and of course it is right to help national health service staff who may be exposed to the flu.
As far as face masks are concerned, let me say that there are large numbers in stock but we have got to do more, and we have now ordered, and are ordering, several million more masks. These orders will come in over the next few days and weeks, and we are determined to have what is necessary. May I say, so that there is no confusion on this, that the face masks are what are necessary for the NHS staff? The guidance that has been given by the chief medical officer about what the public can do, and the guidance that we will send out in the information note from next week—it will be on the website a lot earlier—will not refer to a need for the public to have such a face mask. This is for NHS staff who are in circumstances where they come up to people who are perhaps facing, or suffering from, that flu. That is what the face masks are for. I hope that there will be no doubt in the public’s mind that the advice given by the chief medical officer over the last few days about how people can best prevent the flu and prepare themselves for it is the advice that we stand by, and the Health Secretary will reinforce that this evening.
May I thank the Prime Minister for that answer and that information? I am sure that at this time, the whole country and the whole House of Commons will want to wish the staff of our national health service well in what may be difficult days ahead.
May I turn now to the issue of the Gurkhas? The leader of the Liberal Democrats should be congratulated on proposing the Opposition day debate that we are having later today on the Gurkhas. Everyone in this House, I believe, wants to meet the obligations that we owe the Gurkhas. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need a solution that can be introduced rapidly, but that is consistent with fair and managed immigration? Does the Prime Minister now accept that the proposals that he has put forward are too restrictive, and as a result will neither honour our obligations nor command public support?
May I just reply to the last part of the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about the national health service before I come on to that? We have, of course, issued guidance to every health authority—they are all involved in dealing with this, even though cases have been confirmed in only four areas of the country. The advice to nurses and other members of the health service is that the antiviral will be available to them. The Health Secretary will give more details on that this evening. We want to protect the staff of the national health service, and as everybody recognises, they do a great job. We are very proud of them, and we will continue to support them in everything that we do with the funds that are necessary.
Coming on to the subject of the Gurkhas, which has been raised in the motion tabled for debate today, since 1997, we have taken the first action to give justice to the Gurkhas. During that period, the first ever rights of settlement for Gurkhas in Britain have been agreed, and 6,000 of them have applied successfully and have come into the country. Secondly, we have introduced equal pay and pensions for the Gurkhas—something that had not happened before—and, thirdly, we doubled the pensions of people staying in Nepal and increased the pension for Gurkhas, especially those at a senior age. I respect the fact that this is a matter of great concern for everybody in the country, but we have to balance our responsibilities to those who have served our country with the finance that we need to be able to meet those obligations, and therefore not base our offer on money that we cannot afford.
The proposals that we have introduced will increase the number of Gurkhas who can come into this country by 4,000 or, including families, about 10,000 people. We keep the matter under review, and we will review it over the course of the next few months, as the Home Secretary has said. There are 1,300 cases in the pipeline, and we have promised that we will review them by 11 June. So that there is no misunderstanding, let me say that the majority of the 4,000 who are coming into this country are below the rank of officer, and the suggestion that that is not the case is not, from the information that I have, correct. We will continue to review the position over the next period of time, and we will look particularly at the conditions applied to riflemen for their years of service. We will continue to report back to the House on the issue, but I hope that everybody agrees that this is an advance on where we were. Given that there were no rights of settlement for Gurkhas before 1997, within the public spending constraints that we face, we are taking another big step forward.
The problem with the Prime Minister’s proposals is that those representing the Gurkhas believe that only 100 or so will be able to settle under his proposals. May I suggest a more straightforward way, as he said that he is prepared to review it, which would be to introduce a new category in the immigration system for people from overseas who have served in the armed forces, principally the Gurkhas? That would give the right of settlement to pre-1997 Gurkhas in an ordered way. Is that not a fair and managed way to maintain the integrity of the immigration system, while allowing those Gurkhas to settle in the UK, dealing with the 1,300 and more besides, because we owe them a debt of gratitude?
First of all, the figures that we have announced are 4,000, not 100. They include the families of Gurkhas—their children and descendants—making 10,000 in total. I do not accept the figure of 100, and I do not think that it bears mention, given the fact that on past experience, the 6,000 who have come in represent a very high number of the people who had the right of entry for service after 1997. I believe that those figures are realistic, and we are talking about several thousand people coming into the country. The total number of Gurkhas is 36,000, and the estimated public expenditure is about £1.4 billion for meeting those costs.
We have to work this in stages by balancing the need for the Gurkhas to receive recognition for everything that they have done with the finances that are available, given that we have other problems with which we have to deal at this time. Those who have given 20 years’ service, those who have been injured or disabled, and those who have won special honours for gallantry will be welcomed into this country, and I hope that the House recognises that while not everyone is satisfied with what we have done, we have made progress. We can work through this in stages, and continue to review what the right policy is for the future.
I have to say that if the figures were robust, there would not be a huge number of Gurkhas gathering outside the House, including elderly and frail people who served our country, who do not believe that the Government are playing fair. Is it not the case that maintaining the Government’s approach will simply mean more delay and more elderly Gurkha veterans dying as they wait for an answer? May I ask the Prime Minister one last time whether he will at least consider the idea of introducing an additional category into the immigration system? There is an immigration Bill passing through Parliament to which it could be added. This would be a responsible and reasonable way of achieving a more generous settlement, which Members right across the House would support.
If the right hon. Gentleman is proposing this, presumably he knows the numbers involved, but I do not hear either him or the Liberal party saying the numbers that would be involved in this cause. Of course I am prepared to look at it. I will always look at suggestions that are made, so that we can see whether they are applicable, but what I would like the House to consider is that in stages we have made great progress; we must balance the public expenditure requirements of this country with the needs of those who want to come into our country. There are 1,300 cases under review, so I accept that people are waiting for results, but we have promised that these results will come by 11 June. We are determined to honour the service that the Gurkhas give. We have been very proud of what they have done for our country. We have made major changes over the last few years. We are prepared now to make major changes again, and we are prepared to continue to review the situation for the future, but that must be based on proper facts and figures and on the ability to make decisions that we can afford.
Last December it was my sad duty to attend the funeral in Reading of campaigning Gurkha war veteran Bhim Prasad Gurung, who died in abject poverty while awaiting the outcome of his appeal against the refusal to offer him settlement in the UK. The Prime Minister should be aware that Bhim would have faced deportation under the new guidelines announced on Friday, as he was made redundant after 12 years of brave service and denied his Ministry of Defence pension. Will the Prime Minister be more specific about how quickly he will bring forward his promised 12-month review of the policy, finish the job that the Labour Government started in 2004, and deliver justice for Gurkhas at last?
Let me say first that my hon. Friend has been a campaigner on behalf of the Gurkhas, and he has raised the matter with me not only on many occasions, but recently. I can also say that I sympathise with the case of his constituent and the difficulties that he had faced. In the cases where no answers have been given, we have promised that the answers will come by 11 June. On the further reviews that are taking place, the Home Secretary has made it clear that she will continue to review the position. I am very sensitive to the position of the rifleman whom my hon. Friend mentioned. We will look carefully at that over the next few weeks.
I should like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family of the unnamed soldier who tragically lost his life in Afghanistan yesterday. I thank the Prime Minister for the information that he provided to the House on the measures that are being put in place to deal with swine flu. I join in lending the support of all of us to those working in the health system to deal with the crisis.
The Prime Minister’s answers on the Gurkha issue are deeply, deeply evasive. How is it honest or decent to say that Gurkha soldiers who have served 20 years can come and live in this country, when he knows full well that the majority of ordinary Gurkha soldiers serve only 15 years? How is it honest or decent to say that Gurkha soldiers must prove that their illness was caused by their military service, when he knows full well that the frailest Gurkha veterans cannot do that? Can he not see that there is a simple moral principle at stake, and it is this: if someone is prepared to die for this country, surely they deserve to live in this country?
It is precisely because we have accepted the importance of treating the Gurkhas well that we made changes in the past few years. We equalised pay and pensions and we doubled the pensions of Gurkhas who are retired in Nepal. It is precisely because we take seriously the questions that the right hon. Gentleman has raised today that we have increased the numbers of those who can come into this country. I have been given the information that half of the 4,000 are below officer class. It is not right to suggest that everybody who can come into the country must be a commissioned officer in the first place.
I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that we are making progress stage by stage on the matter. He has to bear in mind, as he constantly says, that there are public expenditure issues involved. At the moment, £1.4 billion would be a very big sum of money indeed for us to guarantee. We are taking the steps that are necessary, there is more justice for the Gurkhas than there ever was in the years before 1997, and we will continue to do our duty by the Gurkhas who have served this country.
What kind of answer is that? It is the answer of a man who seems to know that he is doing a shameful thing, but does not have the guts to admit it or change it. It is the answer of a Government who have no principles and no courage. I ask the Prime Minister again: surely simple, ordinary British decency means that soldiers who are prepared to die for this country deserve to live in this country.
That is why we have taken the actions over the last few years that we have done. Let me just repeat: we led the way in giving Gurkhas right of settlement in this country, we led the way in equalising pay and pensions, and we led the way in doubling the pensions of those who are in Nepal. Now we are making sure that people with medical conditions and awards for their service to this country, as well as those with 20 years of service, can come into this country. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we believe that large numbers of people will take up that invitation for themselves and their families. But I have to put it to him that Governments must always balance the need to take action in stages with the resources that they have available. It may not be a problem that he has to face: it is a problem that we have to face and we will take the right decisions.
As my hon. Friend knows, that expenditure is over more than 20 years. As he also knows, we wish to use the fact of our deterrent to bring about non-proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the world and to persuade other countries to be part of a process of nuclear disarmament. At the moment there is an opportunity for the major powers to reduce their nuclear weapons and in return we could get agreements about non-proliferation of nuclear weapons from some of the major powers, while at the same time offering them the right that they should have to civil nuclear power. He may remember that the non-proliferation treaty was based on two principles: first, that countries with nuclear weapons would cut their nuclear weapons, and, secondly, that we would give non-nuclear states access to civil nuclear power. Given the pressures that exist at the moment, that is an even more relevant position than it was 50 years ago.
Two and a half million extra jobs in 1997, 1 million extra young people in further education and training, 1 million more adults getting education and literacy, a doubling of the national health service and education—all would be put at risk by a Conservative Administration.
Eight hundred employees of the LDV van-maker in Birmingham, together with thousands more in dealerships and suppliers, face new worries today with the announcement that the company has applied to go into administration in a week or so. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government will do everything that they can, proactively as well as reactively, to secure a viable owner for the company, with the backing that it needs to allow LDV to realise its potential, including the production of a new generation of electric vans?
Yes, we will. My hon. Friend is right. He has taken up the case of the car and vehicle industry in the midlands over many years. We have had substantial talks with the company, LDV, and we have tried to be of help to it. We have said that a range of Government support is available if it has a business model for moving forward that we can work with and support. Obviously, the responsibility for putting the company on a firmer footing has rested with the owner and potential investors, but we have already set aside money to make it possible for the car industry to receive support from Government.
We are the party that is offering the guarantee of education to 18 for every young person; we are the party that is bringing in plans from this autumn that every teenager can have education as of right to 18; and we have announced in the Budget the money that will be made available to do so. It is a bit much for the Conservative party to complain about education funding when the first thing that the Conservatives would do is cut it as a result of their plans.
I think that Members should remember that the whole country is looking at our proceedings, and I think also that the whole country wants us to take the action that is necessary to clean up any problems and any abuses that exist in our system. [Interruption.] I must say to all Members who are shouting that they should have some humility, because the public are the taxpayers, and the public pay for the expenses of MPs. We have a duty to put in shape the best measures possible for dealing with that.
In the last week, we have made more progress than we made for many years. First of all, we are dealing with problems of employment of staff. We are dealing also with the problems that arise from outside interests, and I know that there is a lot of sensitivity on the Opposition Benches as we talk about that. Equally, we are dealing with the problems of London Members living in London at the same time as being in Westminster; we are dealing with the problems of grace-and-favour residences; and we are dealing with a review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life of the problem of the additional costs allowance. That should be based on transparency and attendance in the House, and a lower amount of money should be spent on it than is now. That is the way forward, and I hope that Members will all support the Government’s proposals tomorrow.
Yes, we should be less restrictive. That is why we have put forward the proposals. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that we can move in stages on this matter. This is a proposal that will allow 4,000 more Gurkhas to come into this country and mean that 10,000 people—their families included—will be able to reside in this country. That is the purpose of our proposal. I hope that he will support it.
We are taking action instead of the Opposition’s policy of doing nothing. Some 100,000 companies have benefited from our tax deferral, 350,000 workers are on short time and are getting benefit from our tax credits system, and we are ready to do more to help small, medium-sized and large businesses to look at the provision of guarantees and loans for the future. All over the world, I see Governments who are prepared to act and increase public investment to help people through the recession. The only party I know that refuses to do that is the Conservative party of Britain.
On the first question of the European referendum, in the German summit to discuss the constitution-that-was, it was decided that the constitutional concept should be abandoned. That was the issue before us. If I may say so, the shadow Business Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who is not here today, accepted our view that the referendum was not necessary as a result of the changes that have taken place, and he said—this man is a Front Bencher—that the people who put forward the idea of a referendum were crackpot and daft.
As for tax, the Conservatives have to make their own decisions, but I believe that at a time when the nation faces difficulties, it is right that the people who have benefited so much as a result of their increase in income over the past few years should pay a little more as a contribution to helping this country through. That money will help people to get jobs, help young people to get training, help to build a low-carbon economy, and help to build our public services. I believe that the majority of people in this country will think that that is the right decision to make for the future of Britain.
Afghanistan and Pakistan
With permission, Mr. Speaker, following my visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan earlier this week, I should like to make a statement on the Government’s strategy for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
First, I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to all those serving in our armed forces, and remember with gratitude those who have given their lives in the service of our country. As I saw again on Monday, our armed forces are facing enormous challenges with great skill, determination and courage. They are the best in the world, and we are immensely proud of them.
Our counter-terrorist strategy, published last month, set out how we are working to tackle terrorism around the globe, but one priority—indeed, the greatest international priority—is the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are the crucible for global terrorism, the breeding ground for international terrorists, and the source of a chain of terror that links the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the streets of Britain.
Pakistan and Afghanistan are of course different countries at different stages of development, but as the document we are publishing today emphasises, together they face this shared challenge of terrorism. In Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban are using mines and suicide bombs to carry out attacks on our troops and on innocent civilians. In Pakistan, the army and security services are now dealing with the wider territorial ambitions made clear by the Pakistan Taliban. Last year alone in Pakistan itself, 2,000 civilians and security personnel were killed in terrorist attacks. Suicide bombs in Pakistan, once relatively rare, were used 60 times last year and are at the same level this year—an almost tenfold rise in over two years.
We know that terrorist leaders are orchestrating attacks around the world from the border areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and we know also of the stronger connections that now exist between the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban, and between them and al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. That requires us to take further, more determined and concerted action.
In our December 2007 strategy, we made the right long-term decisions for Afghanistan, decisions that were reinforced in the conclusions of the United States’ review last month. Now, following our own review to identify what is working and where we need to go further, I want to set out an updated strategy for our actions in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how we will mobilise our resources to take those actions. In both countries we are working with the elected Governments, including through our commitments to support their economic development and through combined development and stabilisation expenditure of £255 million, £256 million and £339 million—a total of almost £1 billion over three years. In both countries our involvement is focused on the tasks that are necessary to enable them to counter the terrorist threat themselves.
For Afghanistan, our strategy is to ensure that the country is strong enough as a democracy to withstand and overcome the terrorist threat, and strengthening Afghan control and resilience will require us to intensify our work in the following key areas. First, we will build up the Afghan police and army and the rule of law, and we should now adopt the stated goal of enabling district by district, province by province handover to Afghan control. Secondly, we want to strengthen Afghan democracy at all levels, including by ensuring credible and inclusive elections and improving security through that period. Thirdly, we want to help strengthen local government in Afghanistan, not least the traditional Afghan structures such as the local shuras. Fourthly, we want to give people in Afghanistan a stake in their future, promoting economic development as the best way of helping the Afghan people to achieve not just stability but prosperity.
In Pakistan, our strategy to tackle the same underlying problem of terrorism results in different proposals. First, we want to work with the elected Government and the army, but while Afghanistan’s forces are at an early stage and so international forces have to play a front-line role, by contrast Pakistan has a large and well funded army, and we want to work with it to help it counter terrorism by taking more control of the border areas. Secondly, not least through support for education and development, we want to prevent young people from falling under the sway of violent and extremist ideologies.
Let me address the proposals in turn. As I said to the House in December 2007, success in strengthening Afghanistan to withstand terrorism will ultimately depend on building the Afghans’ capacity to take control of their own security, so we want to work to build up the Afghan army from its current strength of 80,000 to a total of 134,000 by late 2011. I believe that we will need even greater numbers than that for the future. Already 300 of our forces in Helmand are dedicated to training them. Nationally, we are leading the training of non-commissioned officers and have trained over 18,000, and together with France we have also trained over 1,000 army officers. As many Members know, Afghan army brigades have fought bravely alongside our troops, as we saw in a major operation to drive insurgents out of Nad Ali earlier this year, and 90 per cent. of the Afghan public see their army as an honest and fair institution.
However, the same is not yet true of the police, and that must be achieved if Afghans are to spread the rule of law throughout their country. We have 120 civilian and military advisers working with the police, and I can tell the House that, as resources are freed from the south as the US moves in, we will over time shift the balance of our operations away from front-line combat and towards an enhanced contribution to training both the army in Afghanistan and its police.
At its 60th anniversary summit last month, the NATO alliance unanimously agreed that supporting the Afghans to build a stronger democratic Afghanistan was its highest priority. Afghanistan is about to hold its second presidential election. A safe, credible and inclusive election is essential. We are providing £15 million for election support, and President Karzai has given me further personal assurances about his determination to ensure credible, inclusive elections. I also reiterated to him the concerns that we and the whole world have about the Shi’a family law, and I welcome his decision to review that draft Bill. I urged him to step up his Government’s efforts to tackle the corruption that has discouraged Afghans from backing democracy against the Taliban, and I made it clear that we will support the Afghan Government as they take forward the process of reconciliation.
Our aim is to divide, isolate and then remove the insurgents and offer those prepared to renounce violence and accept the Afghan constitution the prospect of work and security. However, those who refuse must prepare for a long and difficult battle, in which there can be only one winner: democracy and a strong Afghan state.
Just as the Afghans need to take control of their own security, they also need to build legitimate governance. We will strengthen our efforts on localisation, civilianisation and the promotion of economic development so that Afghan people have a stake in their future. Our local joint civilian and military teams are supporting the Afghan social outreach programme in Helmand. In key districts, we are helping district governors reach out to the traditional tribal system through shuras, which, as I saw on Monday, are now empowering local solutions to local problems. To support that, we have doubled the number of deployed civilian experts. We are encouraging other countries to follow that example and urging the United Nations to play a greater role in co-ordinating the civilian effort. Last month, the Secretary of State for International Development announced an additional £50 million for development assistance. Today he is publishing his Afghanistan country plan.
Britain remains Afghanistan’s third biggest donor, with more than £500 million committed over the next four years. In Helmand, that allows us to support the building of a road to Lashkar Gah and the refurbishment of the hydropower dam, from which up to 200,000 people will benefit through irrigation. We are also investing £30 million over four years to work with the Government on a new programme of agricultural support, which includes the wheat-seed programme in Helmand as a viable alternative to poppy and, nationally, improved access to credit so that more Afghans can invest in farming.
Following my visit last December, the Defence Secretary and I approved a temporary increase—until August—in the number of British troops deployed to Afghanistan, from just over 8,000 to around 8,300. Now, to strengthen security throughout the election period, I have authorised a further increase to 9,000 until the autumn. To ensure that our forces are properly protected, especially from the growing threat of mines and roadside bombs, we will deploy permanent additional units for that purpose. Some are in the process of deploying now, with others joining them soon. After the election and through the autumn, we plan to return our troop numbers to 8,300. As always, we will keep the position under review, based on the situation on the ground.
I am determined that Britain will fulfil its international commitments. I believe that, with a deployment of more than 8,000 troops, concentrated in the Taliban heartland of the south, and with the additional costs of the reserve—which increased from £700 million in 2006 to £1.5 billion in 2007-08, then to £2.6 billion in 2008-09, with last week’s Budget estimating £3 billion for 2009-10—we are shouldering our share of the burden in Afghanistan. As more NATO troops deploy to the south, we will be able to share that burden more fairly. At the NATO summit this year, allies offered around 5,000 more troops in addition to the extra 21,000 combat and training troops that the United States plans to deploy, many of whom are destined for the south. I also welcome the additional Australian deployment announced this morning—an extra 450 personnel, bringing the total of Australian troops to around 1,550.
We will continue to place the highest priority on the safety of our forces, providing the necessary funding, with more than £1 billion in urgent operational requirements for vehicles in the past three years, including Mastiff patrol vehicles, which are among the best protected in the world. We have increased helicopter numbers and flying hours by 60 per cent. in the past two years.
It has become increasingly clear in the past year just how crucial Pakistan and its border areas with Afghanistan have become to stability in Afghanistan and to our national security at home. Those border areas are used by violent extremists as a base for launching attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan. As President Obama said, al-Qaeda and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within. Although the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan are different and require distinct approaches, we can no longer consider the terrorist threats arising in the two countries in isolation from each other.
While in Pakistan I met President Zardari, Prime Minister Gilani and former Prime Minister Sharif and we discussed stronger action against terrorism and violent extremism. We are agreeing clear shared principles for our bilateral relationship: that terrorism and violent extremists present the most significant threat to both Britain and Pakistan; and that, throughout Pakistan and especially in the border areas, there must be long-term good governance and economic development to underpin progress on security.
To deliver on those principles we agreed an enhanced strategic dialogue to bring together our senior diplomatic, military and intelligence teams on a more regular basis. We will support that closer co-operation immediately, through a £10 million programme of counter-terrorism capacity-building, working with Pakistan’s police and security services. As Pakistan steps up the fight on terrorism, so we will focus greater attention on the basic human challenges that Pakistan still faces in education, health and respect for human rights, in each of which failure serves only to fuel radicalisation.
Britain’s development programme in Pakistan will become our second largest worldwide. We will provide £665 million in assistance over the next four years, but we will refocus much of our aid, including more than £125 million of education spending, on the border areas of Pakistan. We are working for the establishment of a World Bank trust fund for development in those border areas and we will press other countries to increase their contribution. With UK support, the recent Friends of Pakistan meeting and the donor conference in Tokyo have already delivered pledges of $5 billion over the next two years. Next month President Zardari will visit the UK. We will take forward our shared efforts to tackle terrorism. We will support economic development and harness the international community’s assistance for Pakistan, but we will also continue our discussions to agree a concordat to strengthen our practical co-operation to meet all the terrorist challenges.
Forty countries and more have shown the international community’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan. In December 2007 we led the way with our proposals to complement the brave action of our troops by building up the Afghan army and police and local government to give Afghans more control over their own affairs. Tackling terrorism in and from the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan drives forward our new set of proposals today. We will complement the necessary military action with economic, social and political progress aimed at building stronger and more effective democracies and strengthening the ability of the Afghan and Pakistan authorities to take greater responsibility for action against terrorism, building the strength in Afghanistan and Pakistan upon which their security and our security here in Britain ultimately depend. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for giving his statement today, although for a minute it was quite a close-run thing.
There are many things in the statement that we agree with. Above all, we can agree that the professionalism, dedication and courage of our armed forces personnel in Afghanistan are incredibly impressive. I have been three times in the past three years, and whether one is up the Helmand valley at Sangin, in Lashkar Gah or back at base in Camp Bastion, they are people of whom we can be incredibly proud. They have that can-do attitude, but we must always be careful as politicians not to take too much advantage of the fact that the Army and our armed services are always there and ready to serve.
I want to ask the Prime Minister about three areas: first, our overall strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan; secondly, the situation in Afghanistan, particularly with respect to the elections; and finally, the deteriorating situation in Pakistan. Last month President Obama set out a new US strategy, which he summed up in a single sentence:
“to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”
Is it not essential that our strategy is as tightly defined, as hard-headed and as realistic as that? We are not in the business of trying to create a new Switzerland in the Hindu Kush; we want to help provide security and deny al-Qaeda those training bases. President Obama also stressed that the Americans would not just press on blindly with their strategy, but would regularly assess whether they were making real progress against clear benchmarks and would hold themselves accountable. Given that we have been in Afghanistan for almost eight years now, what plans does the Prime Minister have to do the same here in Britain?
Next, on preparations for the August elections and the planned increase in troop numbers, we have said that we would be ready to support an increase for the elections, as long as it was clearly justified and backed up by extra equipment, such as helicopters and adequate force protection. In his statement, the Prime Minister gave some figures for the helicopter hours and capacity up to now; can he give us the future figures that will accompany the increase in troops for the election?
The Prime Minister talked about our NATO allies sharing a fairer burden in Afghanistan, as was announced at the recent NATO summit. Can he tell us when this commitment will be delivered, and how many of the extra troops will be based in southern Afghanistan? I believe that he said in his statement that many of them would be in south Afghanistan; can he tell us how many?
The US has announced a substantial troop reinforcement of 21,000 troops, including another 8,000 for Helmand province. Will the Prime Minister tell the House—in some detail, if possible—how the US forces will fit into the command chain in Helmand and Regional Command (South), and what implications their arrival will have for the combined British effort in Helmand?
No Afghan really likes the presence of foreign soldiers on Afghan soil, and the sooner we can safely reduce that number, the better. So it is right that we press ahead with the Afghanisation of the effort to bring security to that country. The Prime Minister is absolutely right to say that the Afghan national police have been seen as the weakest link in the security chain. Does he really believe that progress is now being made? The stories that we hear when we are there are pretty horrific. Progress is clearly much better in the army, but it is still reported that there is serious under-representation of Pashtuns in the army. Will the Prime Minister tell us what is being done about that?
It will clearly be difficult for the elections to be free and fair. Will the Prime Minister tell us what progress has been made on electoral registration and whether the Government expect that it will be possible for proper independent monitoring of the elections to take place?
Next, what happens in Pakistan is clearly as important for our security as what happens in Afghanistan, so for the purposes of our strategy we should treat them as one. The plotters of 9/11, the killers of Benazir Bhutto, the men who bombed London, and many others involved in many plots against our country either came from or were trained in western Pakistan, in the federally administered tribal areas extending all the way down to Baluchistan. That is where al-Qaeda remains active.
Pakistan, as we all know, has an enormous standing army, but it is configured for a conventional battle against a perceived external threat. It is not designed to deal with the sort of existential threat that Pakistan now faces from within. The Prime Minister talked about providing the assistance that Pakistan needs to train and equip its forces to deal with that threat. Did he meet the heads of the army on this visit? As things stand, what is his assessment of the Pakistan armed forces’ ability to come to grips with the Taliban’s continuing advance towards Islamabad? Are reports accurate that the Taliban are setting up militant training camps in the areas that they currently occupy, such as the Swat valley, and that many young people are joining those camps?
Will the Prime Minister also comment on what is being done to disrupt the activities of the Quetta shura, which, by all accounts, exerts a malign and controlling influence on both sides of the border? Can he comment on specific reports that the Quetta shura holds meetings around Pakistan, including a recent one in Karachi?
We all welcome the increase in UK aid that the Prime Minister has announced. Will he tell us how that aid will be linked to Pakistan’s performance in fighting terrorism? In particular, what help will the Government offer Pakistan to deal with extremist propaganda? Ambassador Holbrooke, who was in Britain recently, has drawn attention to the scores of low-wattage radio stations operating in the Swat valley. Apparently, night after night, they broadcast lists of people who are going to be executed. What are we doing to help the Pakistanis to jam those radio stations?
Terrorism and extremism must be confronted, but we must do that by working with the Government of Pakistan, and by drawing on our long history and knowledge of that country to help them to deal with the mortal threat that they now face. Does that not require patient, steady work to build up relationships and close ties with Pakistan? Is that not the vital role for Britain, now and in the future?
I am grateful for that level of agreement about what the strategy has to be, now and in the future, and I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman agrees with me that the focus has to be greater than ever on the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, from where so much terrorist activity happens. We all have a shared interest: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Britain. Two thirds of the attacks or plots in Britain come from Pakistan, and 2,000 Pakistanis died last year and as many are dying this year as a result of terrorist plots. We know that the Taliban in Afghanistan have been active in killing not just British soldiers but civilians who refuse to abide by their wishes.
In answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s specific questions, yes, it is right to focus the Pakistan army and security services on the border areas. It is true that the federally administered tribal areas and the North West Frontier have never been fully brought under control by a democratic Government in Pakistan. It is also true, however, that there are 120,000 troops from Pakistan on the Afghan border, although of course the major effort has been reserved for protecting the border with India. We are working with the Pakistani army, so that it can be trained in counter-terrorism capability. Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of the Defence Staff, was with me in Pakistan and met General Kiani, the head of the Pakistani forces. There is ever closer co-operation between our two countries on these issues, and we have put £10 million immediately into counter-terrorism support in Pakistan. At the same time, we want to see regular conferences at diplomatic, military and political levels to look at the problems that we face.
It is true that there are well publicised incidents in Pakistan of the Pakistan Taliban gaining more control, but it is also true that there have been huge operations by the Pakistan army—two days ago, yesterday and, I believe, today—to take on the Taliban. The army has been very active in trying to deal with this issue. There was of course a motion passed in the Pakistan Assembly that allowed sharia law in a particular place, but I believe that the parliamentarians are now reconsidering that decision.
On Afghanistan, it is right to say that police training has been slow. It is therefore essential that we do more. There is a big NATO effort—the Germans were in the lead—and it is important, as we discuss these things with the Americans and our European partners, that the emphasis is on training the Afghan army and police. The Afghan army is to rise to 134,000. My own view, and that of the Defence Secretary, is that that will still be too small a number, given the terrain in Afghanistan, and that we will probably have to train far more Afghan soldiers. That is why a lot of our resources will be devoted to training.
We are reconfiguring our troops in Afghanistan for one very precise reason: the tactics of the Taliban have become those of guerrilla warfare. The use of roadside devices and improvised explosive devices has become common, and we have to prepare and arm our troops to deal with that problem and reconfigure our numbers in those areas where there has been significant trouble. When I was in Lashkar Gah, an operation was going on not so far away, and the bravery and dedication of our troops in clearing the areas so that they can sustain communities that are free from the Taliban was very impressive indeed.
The Leader of the Opposition raised the question of development expenditure. He is absolutely right to say that we are trying to combine the measures, militarily and politically, that will help to strengthen the Afghan state and Pakistani democracy, while, as they take on the terrorists, providing support for development so that people can see that they have a stake in the future. In the northern part of Pakistan, we are offering a very substantial redirection of aid, enabling 300,000 children—girls—to go to school, and the provision of books that will teach people the history of Pakistan and not the teaching of the madrassahs. That additional expenditure on education goes side by side with what we are trying to do to restore and gain democratic footholds in those areas.
In Afghanistan, the key areas are not just education and health. There are 6.5 million children at school, and we have been building health centres, but there is also new development on roads, the building of dams and irrigation in agriculture. The agricultural seed programme is very successful. I talked to Governor Mangal in Helmand, and he believes that all those things are moving forward. Our strategy is therefore exactly the same as the American strategy announced a month or two ago. In December 2007, we set down the idea of Afghanisation as the way forward, and our strategy now is to back up democratically elected Governments and to ensure that the elections are fair—£15 million has been put into election organisation. Incidentally, electoral registration has been going very well. There could be two rounds in the election and there must be proper monitors. We have to bring in people from outside to perform that role, but on this occasion there must be Afghan monitors as well.
Our strategy is to combine support for the developing institutions of Afghanistan and of Pakistan with development aid, so that people know that they have an economic and social stake in the future. I believe that that is the right strategy not just for Afghanistan and Pakistan, but for Britain.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and very much welcome his decision to visit those two countries and increasingly to deal with them together—that has to be right—just as I warmly welcome the move from the Obama Administration in Washington to engage with neighbouring powers such as Iran, Russia and China on the region’s stability.
I join the Prime Minister and others in commending the extraordinary work of our troops in Afghanistan. They really do an outstanding job in exceptionally difficult circumstances, but it is clear that public support here at home for the conflict is under strain. We support the decision to send more troops to Helmand to get the job done. Given the overstretch of our armed forces, I understand why we are sending only a small number, but does he agree that the worst of all worlds would be to send reinforcements without committing enough resources to do the job properly? Our brave servicemen and women need to be able to improve security—not just hold the line against the Taliban—if we are to be able to bring this deployment to an end.
When President Obama launched his new strategy on Afghanistan a few weeks ago, he talked about an “exit strategy”, though understandably for the moment with no timetable. Will the Prime Minister tell me about the preparations and criteria for the NATO and British exit strategy in his approach? Does he agree that long-term stability will be achieved in Afghanistan only if we can secure the country’s economic and social development, and deliver a major increase in the size and quality of the Afghan security forces, especially the police? He has spoken a great deal about that already.
Will the Prime Minister confirm that because, I imagine, no Afghan Government for the foreseeable future will be able to afford adequate security forces, the international community will have to commit to long-term funding support? If so, what will Britain’s long-term funding contribution be?
It is clear—it seems to me, at least—that the international community may find itself committed to Afghanistan for many years. So, to ensure that our forces have the right resources for that and other deployments in the future, will the Prime Minister agree to a full strategic defence review to ensure that we plan for the needs of peacekeeping and asymmetric warfare, not cold war era state-to-state conflict?
Moving on to Pakistan, there are serious concerns about that country’s stability, not least because it is a nuclear-armed state. Its future is obviously of immense concern to us all. Will the Prime Minister tell us what progress was made in ensuring that those weapons, whose very existence is a huge risk in this tinderbox region, are kept in safe hands?
Britain has a unique role to play, given our historical relationship with Pakistan and the large Pakistani community here in Britain, so does the Prime Minister accept that his rather clunking remarks at the height of a counter-terrorism operation that did not even lead to any charges being brought were the perfect example of how to raise anxieties both within Pakistan and in communities in Britain?
I am sorry to start on a discordant note, but the duty of the Government is to protect the citizens of our country, and we have to take what action we think is necessary—based on decisions made by the police and, in cases, the judiciary—to protect the security of the citizens of our country. That is exactly what we did and exactly what we will continue to do.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s points about Pakistan and Afghanistan, we are raising the number of troops during the election period to 9,000 to ensure that the elections can proceed without intimidation and without violence, following the registration of the voters. I am confident—because of that increased number and because 10 other countries have committed to provide additional troops during this period to the tune of 5,000, as well as the additional representation of American forces—that we will see an election that I hope will be free and fair. It will need Afghan monitors as well as outside monitors for the terrain to be fully covered, but I hope that we have taken the measures necessary for that.
On the longer-term strategy for Afghanistan, I repeat that our aim is that Afghan people themselves can take more control over their own affairs, so I see a process where, province by province, as has happened in Kabul, Afghan control can be established in the different areas of the country, obviously starting with the north. Parts of the Helmand area could, over time, be passed over to local control. For that, we need greater Afghan army numbers and greater professionalism on behalf of the Afghan police. We also need to support the local shuras and local government in the tasks that they carry out, and that is what we intend to do.
America is bringing troops into the south because that is the area of greatest difficulty. To answer a point that the Leader of the Opposition made that I did not answer earlier, everybody will be working under the ISAF arrangements, including the Americans in the south.
On Pakistan, I agree with the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) that there is a need to tackle terrorism at all levels. We will continue to do that.
Three years ago, we spent about £700 million on Afghanistan. That is rising to £3 billion next year. That enormous cost is being met by the British taxpayer to ensure security in Afghanistan, and of course in the border areas, to prevent terrorism in Britain and to strengthen the Afghan democracy. We want others to join us in sharing that burden in Afghanistan.
On defence strategy as a whole, I think the right hon. Gentleman will agree, looking at the documentation over these last 10 years and more, that we have been consistently reviewing our strategy since the end of the cold war. Nobody could have expected some of the events, particularly those after September 2001, that have affected our country and many others. We must have a defence strategy that is not only consistent but able to respond to whatever events happen round the world.
First, may I offer my personal condolences to the family, friends and comrades of the soldier in the 1st Battalion, the Welsh Guards, who gave his life this week in Afghanistan?
My admiration for our troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and for the civilians who support them, knows no bounds. Over the time in which I had the privilege of visiting them regularly, I became very concerned as to whether the vocabulary that I had at my disposal was adequate to express my admiration for them. We tend to repeat the same phrases all the time, but those are the only words we have. We have enormous admiration for our troops, and it grows every time we see them.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for his statement and welcome the publication of a revised strategy. It shows confidence to revisit and revise the strategy, as that suggests that we are reflecting and are on the right lines. My experience in this area suggests to me that almost every other country in this alliance will probably do the same thing now that we have done it. In the past, we have tended to have given them permission to put such thoughts in writing and to develop a strategy because we have done so.
Over the coming weeks, a proliferation of tests will be applied to the strategy to see whether it is correct, but the only test that matters is whether it goes with the grain of the communities that we are trying to serve in Helmand province and beyond, in the Afghan-Pakistan area. That is why the fact that the Prime Minister—
Order. Please have a seat. May I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I do not wish to be cruel, but he is now on the Back Benches and the difficulty is that there must be only one supplementary? This is not an opportunity for a speech. Out of respect, will he please finish? He will know next time.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker; I apologise.
At the shura that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister attended, what did the tribal leaders tell him that the people they represent want? Did their requests fit with the grain of the strategy?
I am grateful to my friend, who served with great distinction at the Ministry of Defence. There is great respect for him right across the Chamber of the House.
I visited one of the shuras in Helmand, at Lashkar Gah, and the message I got was very simple: people want security, and they want it to be guaranteed by our presence, a stronger Afghan army and a stronger Afghan police force. They want that security to be the basis on which they can build prosperity for their families, making use of the agricultural land in that area while at the same time getting education and health care for their families.
It is very clear that we are responding to the wishes of the Afghan people. That is why it is so important that we unite in our strategy of dividing, defeating and, eventually, decommissioning the terrorist forces that operate there.
Bearing in mind that there are probably more potential international terrorists in Britain than in the Tora Bora mountains, may I nevertheless congratulate the Prime Minister, no doubt under the influence of the new American Administration, on at last moving away from the political and strategic follies of the last seven years, and on making a much more realistic assessment—that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won by foreign military forces, that the existence of foreign forces in Afghanistan radicalises Pakistan, and that Pakistan is a far greater problem because it is a nuclear power and a vastly bigger country with a vastly bigger population? May I give my advice, which is that we should give every encouragement to the Pakistan army to resume political control of that almost ungovernable country before there is an international nuclear catastrophe?
Pakistan has been under military rule for half its existence, and people, including the army, want to see a democratic Pakistan taking control of its own affairs and being able to deal with the terrorist problems in its midst. On reflection, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is the right course, not only now but for the future. Of course we must take action against the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but that is exactly what we are doing. We are working closely with not only the American Government but 40 other partners in NATO to do so.
In six months’ time, British troops will have been in Afghanistan for almost eight years. Now the numbers are going up to 9,000 and the conflict is spreading over into Pakistan. Is it not just a matter of time before the conflict spreads over for real into Pakistan, and British troops are also deployed there? Is it not time for a complete rethink of the whole strategy, which is beginning to look awfully like that which sucked the Americans deeper and deeper into Vietnam and ended up with a humiliating retreat 15 years later?
In the seven years that we have been in Afghanistan, a democracy has been established for the first time, the Taliban have been removed from power and 6 million children are going to school, a third of those children are girls who never got the chance of education before. We are building health care centres with the Afghan people, and we are now trying to build up an Afghan democracy, which has a strong army and police force to protect itself against terrorism. I agree with my hon. Friend that the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan are the source of many of the terrorist problems faced not only by that region but around the world. The way to deal with that is to work with the Afghan people and the Pakistan people to defeat that terrorist threat.
I welcome the decision that recognises the simple fact that the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan effectively does not exist and is completely porous. But will the Prime Minister also acknowledge that additional aid to the two countries will first go towards poverty reduction, which will be its prime purpose, and that the rights of women and human rights will be respected by the Governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan? Given President Karzai’s statement that the last leader who stood up for the rights of women was the king in 1929, who was assassinated, and that he did not want to follow his example, that is not leadership that we should respect. We should require him to understand what that international support is for.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who has been involved in international development for many years, for sharing his knowledge with the House. The Shi’a family law is completely unacceptable and we have made it clear to President Karzai that in our view it is a breach of the Afghan constitution, which respects human rights. Yesterday, at the press conference we held, he said that he accepted that anything that breached the constitution and undermined the fundamental rights of people in his country could not be an acceptable law for the future. We will continue to press him on that issue.
The right hon. Gentleman is also right that the focus of our development spending is on providing opportunities that help people out of poverty, and that includes the increased spending on education in Pakistan. According to our knowledge, it is correct that people can get free education, board and lodging at madrassahs, but must then submit to an extremist ideology as part of that education. If we can increase the number of schools in Pakistan, and particularly the opportunities for girls to get education, that will make a huge difference in the long term to how Pakistani people see their future, free of terrorism. That is exactly what we will do.
My right hon. Friend has rightly reminded the House that Pakistan and its people have been great victims of terrorism yet, despite that, the overwhelming majority remain wedded to democracy. In accepting that his proposals for greater economic assistance to Pakistan are important in showing that democracy has its own rewards, will he remind all our allies in Washington and elsewhere that in any military action it is necessary to work to sustain the democratic institutions of Pakistan, not undermine them?
That was well expressed by the Pakistani leaders I met yesterday, who are worried about the airspace incursions. At the same time, the Pakistani leadership wish to rid themselves of the al-Qaeda elements that operate in their country, and know that the focus of al-Qaeda’s organisation and bases has moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan. We must find ways of working with them to deal with the terrorist threat, and we will do so.
If, as the Prime Minister has indicated, the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan Taliban are now working closely together and co-operating, is it not about time that the Afghan Government and the Pakistan Government showed a similar degree of co-operation? Is the Prime Minister aware that one of the major problems is that since 1948 the Afghan Government have consistently refused to recognise the frontier between their two countries as permanent? Will the Prime Minister speak to President Karzai and encourage him to recognise that frontier? Without that, many in Pakistan will continue to be ambivalent, to put it mildly, about working closely with the Afghan Government?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right about some of the existing problems, and I respect his knowledge. I spoke to President Karzai on Monday about those issues, and I also spoke to President Zardari about them. Afghanistan and Pakistan need to come together to consider what issues they can address in common, including agreements about the border areas. It will be difficult to get an agreement on the border line over a short period of time, but such cross-border co-operation, which has not occurred before, is possible. Six co-ordination centres exist at the moment, and we need to do more to expand co-operation between the Afghan army and the Pakistan army—police numbers are limited, but we must ensure that they co-operate in future as well. Next week, President Karzai of Afghanistan and President Zardari of Pakistan will go together to Washington for a meeting with President Bush—[Hon. Members: “Obama.”] Yes, I apologise—with President Obama. They will have that meeting to discuss their common issues in terms of dealing with terrorist and security problems. I assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we wish to have the same level of co-operation, with them both working together with us.
I welcome the list of initiatives that the Prime Minister mentioned in relation to development, democracy and diplomacy in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Does he accept, however, that the line that cannot be crossed would be one that saw any involvement of UK troops, either conventional or special forces, in Pakistan? Does he agree that that would inevitably lead to a civil war in Pakistan, and to wider hostility to the presence of western forces in the region as a whole? Will he assure the House that under no circumstances will UK forces be given a remit to cross that frontier?
I think that my hon. Friend is finding difficulties where they do not exist. The issue is not that but how we can support and back up both the Afghan and Pakistan army and police forces, and we will continue to do that. If we are to fight terrorism, co-operation will be necessary. As the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) mentioned, Afghanistan and Pakistan must learn to work together to deal with their common problems. We can assist in that, but I believe that there is a will from Presidents Karzai and Zardari for that co-operation to happen.
At the end of this very good statement, and in view of the close connection between Pakistan and the United Kingdom, the instant communication between our two countries, the general instability in that region and Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons, does the Prime Minister agree that these issues are of supreme importance to this country and that they affect us very deeply and closely? Will he make it one of the highest priorities of his Government to renew the effort to persuade the people of this country that this is our battle and that we must continue to fight alongside the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan until we win it?
I shall do so. I think it is very important for the country to be informed about the dangers that come from both the Pakistan border and the Afghan border. If we have been able to show something today, it is that the greater co-operation between the terrorist groups that operate across these borders must be dealt with by a more sophisticated and more effective strategy for the future. That is why we want to increase Afghan and Pakistan army and police work in those areas, where it has been limited in the past, and why we are also prepared to work with the Americans and others to increase the counter-terrorism capability, and its financing, of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the threat of terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom comes mainly from those areas of the world that we have been talking about today, and people should know that the chain of terror that goes from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Britain can be broken only by co-operation between all Governments over the next few years.
The security that ISAF provides is essential to Afghanistan’s future, but ultimately democracy and human rights will not be won on the battlefield; they will be won through winning the hearts and minds of the people on both sides of the border. A new World Bank trust fund for development in the border areas will help the Government of Pakistan to win hearts and minds. The United States is the biggest donor to the region by a long margin, but, unlike the United Kingdom, it has not, in the past, put much money through the Afghan trust funds. What discussions has the Prime Minister had with President Obama about US funding for the new trust fund and for the Afghanistan trust funds? Will the United States be putting more money through the trust funds and spending less on bilateral projects?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I know the interest that he has taken in this matter as a member of the Select Committee on International Development. The Secretary of State for International Development has just been explaining to me how the United States Agency for International Development—USAID—and the Department for International Development are working well together on those very issues. It is absolutely right that in so far as there is a co-ordination of military activity, there should also be a co-ordination of development activity—that is what we intend to see happen over the next few months.
May I add my condolences to the family and friends of the Welsh Guardsman who was killed?
I thank the Prime Minister for an early copy of his statement. Given the pivotal role that the UK police played in the Balkans and have played in Iraq, will the Prime Minister ensure that as soon as the security situation permits it, UK police forces will play a pivotal role in training a good Afghan police service?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that British police have helped around the world in establishing the civil order that is necessary in countries that are reconstructing themselves. I believe that over the long term we will have to have some form of organisation comprising civil people from the police, the fire brigades and the legal professions that can help rebuild countries in difficulty. In Afghanistan, the British police could work with the European and NATO force squad that is trying to strengthen police training in Afghanistan. He is right to say that we have a big role to play in helping to develop the police in that country.
In his welcome discussions on counter-terrorism with the President and the Prime Minister of Pakistan, did the Prime Minister discuss Operation Pathway? Did he take the opportunity to visit our entry clearance operation in Islamabad, where Pakistanis seeking to come to this country as students are not routinely interviewed in person—they are interviewed on the telephone? Will he pledge to give whatever resources are needed to boost our entry clearance operation?
Yes, indeed. Biometric visas now have to be obtained by students coming into this country and interviews can take place where that is judged necessary. The rate at which applications have been refused has increased very substantially, and, of course, as a result of a review, the number of colleges in Britain that are registered to accept students from abroad has been radically reduced from 4,000 to 1,500. We are doing what we can to prevent people who may be falsely claiming to be students from coming into our country. At the same time, as I said to President Zardari, Prime Minister Gilani and former Prime Minister Sharif, we welcome Pakistan’s students coming to our country for the purposes of education—more than 10,000 do so. Those links are an important means to build relationships between our two countries in the future, but we must be able to act where there is suspicion of terrorist activity.
Does the Prime Minister accept that the success of this strategy will depend on the co-operation and support of allies? Given that this is a NATO operation in Afghanistan, how far is the strategy that he has announced consistent with NATO’s strategy? Has he discussed this with, and had it endorsed by, our NATO partners? In relation to those same partners, what steps has he taken to persuade those who have imposed caveats on the use of their armed forces in Afghanistan to withdraw those caveats so as to ensure that they make a much stronger and more effective military contribution?
This is exactly what we talked about when we had a full discussion of these matters at the NATO summit. We discussed how other countries could play their part in sharing the burden in Afghanistan. As I said earlier, 10 countries announced that they would deploy at least some more troops for the period of the election. I believe that our strategy is very much in line with the new thinking that is developing across NATO, and it is of course in line with President Obama’s statement of the past few weeks. I believe that addressing the terrorist areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan together will form a bigger feature of NATO’s thinking and that of others in the times to come. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we expect other countries to share the burden too.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was wondering whether you could help me in defending Back Bencher rights against the office of the Prime Minister in relation to written questions. A few years ago, I tabled a parliamentary written question to the previous Prime Minister asking that he instruct Ministers, Departments and Government agencies to stop responding to MPs’ constituency letters—such letters are written on House of Commons paper and have a House of Commons address, thus suggesting that the office of the MP in question is in the House of Commons—by replying to either the office of the political party of the MP in their constituency or what they assumed was the MP’s office, unless the MP had specified that that was where they wanted responses to constituency casework to be taken up. The previous Prime Minister replied to my written question, saying that it was wrong for Ministers and Departments to take that approach, unless it had been specified by an individual MP.
Unfortunately, as I have found in my experience, the habit is starting again, so I tabled an identical question earlier this week to the current Prime Minister asking him if he, as head of the Government, would instruct Ministers, and their Departments and their agencies, to write to MPs at the House of Commons only, unless they had been told to do otherwise. Given that I assumed that only the Prime Minister, as head of the Government, can instruct his Ministers, I was rather disappointed to receive a letter from No. 10 in the past 40 minutes stating the following:
“The Prime Minister has asked me to inform you that he is transferring the following questions”—
about this matter—
“for…answer…to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.”
To my mind, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, if he agrees with my hypothesis, does not have the same authority as the Prime Minister to instruct Ministers. Surely the Prime Minister should be replying to this and taking action if he agrees with me, as the previous Prime Minister did. Is there anything you can do, Mr. Speaker, to stop the transfer of the answer to this question, as that will possibly dilute the effectiveness of getting action taken to ensure that replies to MPs’ correspondence are sent here, if that is where the relevant MP’s office is and where they wish the reply to be sent?
It seems that in this point of order the hon. Gentleman is comparing the previous Prime Minister with the present one. The best way of answering that is by saying that Prime Ministers are a bit like Speakers: no two work the same way. The Prime Minister is entitled, if he so wishes, to pass the legitimate question that the hon. Gentleman has tabled to one of his Ministers, and that is what he has done, just as the previous Prime Minister decided that he would answer the question himself. They both have a different way of working, and it is up to the Prime Minister.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek guidance on one specific point. As the Head of Government, a Prime Minister has the power to issue a blanket instruction to Ministers to behave in a certain way. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is not the Prime Minister, so would he have the authority to order all Ministers to do this?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You can imagine my surprise this morning on finding an early-day motion titled with the name of one of my constituents and referring to his ongoing case, with which I am still dealing. It was tabled by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). Have you not made it clear that hon. Members should stay out of the cases of other hon. Members? The hon. Gentleman did not even do me the courtesy of telling me that he intended to table this early-day motion today. Swarthick Salins won his immigration case because of the hard work of my office and the constituency campaign of the people of Perth. It had nothing to do with the hon. Gentleman or the Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy). Can you restate your ruling that hon. Members should stay out of the cases belonging to other hon. Members?
Another little thing is that the Chair should not be drawn into these matters and people should use their common sense. An early-day motion can be tabled by any hon. Member, even if it relates to somewhere else or someone else’s constituent. However, the courtesies suggest that hon. Members should get in touch with the other hon. Member involved. If any hon. Member wants to take on any immigration cases, I probably have more asylum seekers in my constituency than anyone else in Scotland, so I am prepared to farm out some of that work.
Prevention of Excessive Charges
Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prevent excessive charges or fees from being levied on consumers; and for connected purposes.
Over the last year, we have seen the effects that the irresponsibility and the excesses of the banking sector have had on families and business both here in the United Kingdom and around the world. Tens of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been spent on bailing out our banks in order to deliver help to mortgage holders, businesses and savers. The Bill represents a further measure that must be taken to help those most in need. It is also an opportunity for our banks to show that they have learnt lessons and to act with fairness and responsibility.
In recent years, members of the public have been forced to pay disproportionately high bank charges for modest contractual failures. For example, if a family is late in paying their mortgage they may incur an arrears fee of £60 each month. Over two years those charges can add up to almost £1,500.
In 1998, the average bank charge for customers was £12. By 2006, it had jumped to more than £67—with a £39 charge per declined item, a £28 monthly fee and 30 per cent. unauthorised overdraft interest—which is a 558 per cent. increase in eight years. Bank charges are imposed not just for exceeding an agreed overdraft by a few pounds, but for the act of merely attempting to do so. Typically, they penalise people when they are at their most vulnerable in life and bear no relation to the sums involved.
For example, a constituent’s wages fell because of illness and she was unable to pay four direct debits one week. Her bank imposed default charges of £184, while her creditors imposed individual “failed direct debit” charges of £25, totalling £100. None of her bills has been paid, yet a staggering £284 of charges was imposed—the equivalent of four weeks’ statutory sick pay. The imposition of these excessive charges is forcing hundreds of thousands of individuals into a spiralling cycle of debt and poverty.
We protect individuals against unfair business practices by regulating consumer contracts. The regulations on unfair terms in consumer contracts provide protection for consumers against excessive charges. They allow the court to declare charges as unenforceable if a contractual term requires a consumer to pay a disproportionately high sum in compensation for failing to do something.
There are two major weaknesses with the protection afforded by these regulations.
They are reactive, in that they require individuals to opt in. That means taking a court action, and even then it could take months or years to obtain protection. In the meantime, people continue to suffer from the unfair charges—in addition to which, we know that many people, particularly frail or elderly constituents, will be reluctant to take court proceedings. Why should they have to do so?
Secondly and more worryingly, powerful financial institutions appear able to evade consumer law protections. In 2006, the British Bankers Association claimed bank charges were fair because it really did cost £39 to send a computer-generated letter. That justification was dropped a year or so later when banking whistleblowers revealed that the true cost of these charges was between £1 and £2.
More recently, most UK banks have altered their terms and conditions to avoid the common law prohibitions on penalty charges, as well as arguing that default charges were truly fees for requesting an informal overdraft—an “overdraft” which would generally be automatically declined.
In July 2007, the Office of Fair Trading launched its bank charges test case, with the full co-operation of the major high street banks. While this case has progressed, the banks have continued to impose excessive charges on customers. At the same time, most customers are being prevented from seeking a refund of unfair charges pending the outcome of the test case. Clearly, this position suits the banks well, and it is hardly surprising that even though they have lost the preliminary rounds of this case before the High Court and the Court of Appeal, they are now pursuing a further appeal to the House of Lords.
While it is for the courts to decide whether the banks are right or wrong in terms of the existing law, I believe there is now an overwhelming case for providing UK consumers with better legal protection in this area. The Bill would overcome current statutory law inadequacies and would require any default charge or fee in a consumer contract to be proportionate and fair. This safeguard would provide protection for all consumers throughout the UK.
Protection would apply to any contract currently regulated by the Consumer Credit Act 1974, or any contract where one of the parties was a consumer. A consumer is defined as any “natural person” who enters into a contract
“outside his or her trade, business or profession”.
Also included would be contracts for banking services regulated under the 1974 Act.
Clause 1 of my Bill would make it unlawful for a business to impose a charge, fee, or series of charges and fees for a consumer’s failed or unauthorised transaction unless those charges were valued at no more than 2.5 per cent. of the transaction. That would ensure that the value of charges was always proportionate to the value of the unauthorised or failed transaction.
Returning to my example of a constituent with four bounced direct debits, if the total value of those debits was £400 the maximum overall charge would be reduced to £10 under my Bill. Whereas most companies would impose £25 for unpaid direct debit charges—resulting in an additional £100 of charges—the maximum that could be levied under my Bill would again be £10. So, the charges under my Bill would be no more than £20, which can be set against the excessive £284 that would be imposed under the current system.
I believe this proposal to be both fair and proportionate, having regard to the fact that most businesses have efficient computerised credit control systems whereby standard letters, e-mails or automated telephone calls will typically cost around £1 or less to produce and dispatch. The present system of charging is, I believe, indefensible in terms of the effects it is having on our society, particularly on its poorest and most vulnerable members, especially in the current economic climate. The system simply pushes people into unnecessary financial hardship and exposes countless households to eviction and repossession.
I hope that hon. Members will support my Bill to protect vulnerable people from excessive and unfair charges. I am pleased to say that the Bill commands support from hon. Members from all the main political parties in this House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr. Mohammad Sarwar, Mr. Jim Devine, Mr. Jim McGovern, Willie Rennie, Mr. Tom Harris, Mr. Virendra Sharma, Mr. Ian Davidson, Lindsay Roy, Mark Fisher, Jim Sheridan, Mr. Charles Walker and Ms Dari Taylor present the Bill.
Mr. Mohammad Sarwar accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October and to be printed (Bill 89).
[10th Allotted Day]
Gurkha Settlement Rights
I beg to move,
That this House regrets the Government’s recent statement outlining the eligibility criteria for Gurkhas to reside in the United Kingdom; recognises the contribution the Gurkhas have made to the safety and freedom of the United Kingdom for the past 200 years; notes that more Gurkhas have laid down their lives for the United Kingdom than are estimated to want to live here; believes that Gurkhas who retired before 1997 should be treated fairly and in the same way as those who have retired since; is concerned that the Government’s new guidelines will permit only a small minority of Gurkhas and their families to settle whilst preventing the vast majority; further believes that people who are prepared to fight and die for the United Kingdom should be entitled to live in the country; and calls upon the Government to withdraw its new guidelines immediately and bring forward revised proposals that extend an equal right of residence to all Gurkhas.
I am particularly pleased to be leading in this debate since my county of Hampshire has a long and intimate association with the Gurkhas and the Gurkha museum is based in Winchester, next door to my constituency. The museum is a remarkable celebration of this remarkable brigade, and I recommend it to any Member.
The Gurkha regiments have provided extraordinary service to this country since 1815, when the first Gurkhas entered service with the East India Company, which had been impressed by their fighting prowess as opponents in the Nepal war. The company took the eminently pragmatic view that if we found it hard to beat them, we had better hire them. During the first world war, the Gurkhas fought in France, the Suez canal, Mesopotamia—that is, Iraq—and Gallipoli. During the second world war, the regiments took part in the campaigns of north Africa, Italy, Greece, Malaya and Burma.
After the war and Indian independence, the Gurkha regiments split between the Indian army and the British Army. Our British regiments saw service in the 12-year Malayan emergency, the Falklands, Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Gurkhas have a deserved reputation for effectiveness, bravery and loyalty. Given that remarkable history, it is perhaps surprising that until 2004 it was difficult if not impossible for foreign and Commonwealth members of the armed forces and Gurkhas to obtain settlement and British citizenship at the end of their service.
The view before 2004 seemed to be that Gurkha rights were governed by the tripartite agreement of 1947 between Britain, India and Nepal, which stated that a
“Gurkha soldier must be recruited as a Nepali citizen, must serve as a Nepali citizen, and must be resettled as a Nepali citizen”.
We should pay tribute to the Gurkha welfare campaign and to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who I do not believe is in her place today, for raising the issue in 2003 both in parliamentary questions and in two Adjournment debates. We should also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy) for pushing the issue at Prime Minister’s questions.
In 2004, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who was then the Home Secretary, set out changes to the immigration rules so that all those with at least four years’ service in HM forces could apply for settlement in the UK after discharge. It is important that we recognise that crucial precedent. However, one key stipulation discriminated against Gurkhas compared with other foreign and Commonwealth troops, namely that they had to be discharged on or after 1 July 1997. There were some exceptions, but the fundamental rule was there.
The rationale was simply that 1997 was the point at which the Gurkha regiment moved from its base in Hong Kong to the UK, following the handover of Hong Kong to China. That was never, frankly, the dividing line that some in Government seemed to think. One has only to look at the areas in which the Gurkhas served in the last 100 years to see that they were an integral part of the British armed forces. That decision led to some ridiculous and shameful anomalies. In a famous case, the Victoria Cross holder, Honorary Lieutenant Tul Bahadur Pun, was initially refused indefinite leave to remain for having inadequate ties to the United Kingdom. Indeed, veterans of Malaya, the Falklands, the first Gulf war and long service veterans who were seriously ill were all refused entry. The standard reason given was that they had failed to demonstrate strong ties to the United Kingdom.
A landmark in the recent history of the issue was the judicial review of the Limbu case by the honourable Mr. Justice Blake on 30 September 2008. Mr. Justice Blake found that the policy regarding Gurkhas was unlawful and should urgently be revisited. He noted the apparent concerns of the Ministry of Defence concerning the attitude of the Government of Nepal, but pointed out that they were not based on evidence. Instead, Mr. Justice Blake cited the honouring of an historic debt, and quoted the military covenant as follows:
“Soldiers will be called upon to make personal sacrifices—including the ultimate sacrifice—in the service of the Nation. In putting the needs of the Nation and the Army before their own, they forego some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces. In return, British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals, and that they and their families will be sustained and rewarded by commensurate terms and conditions of service.”
Mr. Justice Blake added his own comment:
“Rewarding long and distinguished service by the grant of residence in the country for which the service was performed would, in my judgment, be a vindication and an enhancement of this covenant.”
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and thank him for the case that he is making. We want justice for the Gurkhas but does he agree that, rather than introducing easier immigration procedures, that just means giving priority to people who served this country well?
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case, but the motion says that
“people who are prepared to fight and die for the United Kingdom should be entitled to live in the country”.
Does he apply that to all foreign nationals who have served in our armed forces?
I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for signing the early-day motion earlier this year that called for exactly what today’s motion calls for, so I hope that he will join us in the Lobby later today. However, he will know that the current arrangements are that foreign and Commonwealth servicemen have the right, after four years of service, to apply for citizenship. That seems to be absolutely crucial.
On a point of clarification: my grandfather, in his beard and turban, fought in the Indian army’s Bengal Engineers but he also fought for King and country in Burma, so would he have fallen under the proposed rules? He passed away a few years ago, but many of his colleagues are still around. Would they be entitled to come and live in this country?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making the point that some traditions in the armed services go back many generations. However, not many regiments can boast the continuous tradition that the Gurkhas have shown for nearly 200 years. That makes the Gurkhas a rather special case, but I believe that the case for the hon. Gentleman’s grandfather, were he still alive, would be worthy of consideration by the Ministry of Defence. However, I suspect that any policy along those lines would be impractical, if only because the people involved would be unlikely to avail themselves of it.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, and assure him that I am not asking awkward questions merely for the sake of it, but because this is a complex area of policy and we need to clarify exactly what his motion proposes. Is he saying that he would widen the eligibility criteria so that they covered not just the Gurkha regiments but also, for example, the Sikh regiments that served with the British Army over the years?
No, I am not saying that. Although I believe that we ought to give serious consideration to extending the criteria to people who have served in the British Army or armed services, today’s motion is specifically limited to the Gurkhas because of the long history involved. Moreover, I remind the hon. Gentleman of what I said about the history of the Gurkha regiments. Some of those who served in the Gurkhas and who went into the Indian army regiments after independence would not necessarily benefit from our proposal—although, frankly, the age of the people involved means that the question is no longer of practical relevance. However, if Ministers are able to find any members of the Brigade of Gurkhas who went into the Indian army after independence and who are still alive, I would be delighted.
The hon. Gentleman is talking complete nonsense. There are people who fought for Britain in the second world war who transferred into the Indian army. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) asks a very good question: is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that they should be included as well? He says that not many of them are still alive, but I met some of them when I was in Nepal three weeks ago.
The Minister makes a nitpicking point about a handful of people, but the key issue that he needs to address concerns those Gurkhas who went into the British armed services after Indian independence. They pose a practical problem, and that is what we are concerned about. The Minister is talking about people aged over 80 whose numbers can be counted on the fingers of one hand. If he wants us to believe that they represent a serious impediment to the House passing the motion before us this afternoon, all I can say is that he is living in a fantasy land.
My hon. Friend has referred to Mr. Justice Blake, who made exactly that point in his judgment. He said that any member of the Indian army was entitled to apply for British citizenship from 1947 until at least 1962, when visa restrictions were introduced. All the people about whom we are talking would be 80 years old or more, but they all had the opportunity to apply for British citizenship—an opportunity that is being totally denied to the Gurkhas because they are from Nepal. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as Mr. Justice Blake pointed out in his judgment, the situations of the two groups are therefore utterly different?
No, as I want to make some progress.
Last week’s Government response was to announce new criteria for the settlement of discharged Gurkhas. They must now have at least three years’ continuous lawful residence in the UK during or after service, and close family ties in the UK. They must also have at least a level 1 to 3 award for gallantry, leadership or bravery, 20 or more years of service, or a chronic or long-term medical condition. There were some other exceptions for Gurkhas who did not fulfil those criteria, but many hon. Members want to speak so I will not go into them.
However, to make the point that I want to make, I shall deal with just one example from the list of criteria that I have set out. The 20-year rule seems to me to be a key discriminator, as so many Gurkhas—and especially private soldiers and riflemen—serve just 15 years. Only officers would have achieved 20 years of service—something that some Labour Member might find surprising, given what I am sure is their desire to treat officers and men equally. That criterion is five times as long as the period for which a foreign and Commonwealth soldier must serve to be granted settlement in the UK.
What does this new package mean in practical terms? The Government say that 4,000 ex-Gurkhas and 6,000 spouses and children will be able to enter—in other words, a total of 10,000 people. Lawyers acting for the campaign say that, to their knowledge, the total would be more like 100. What if we were to extend the pre-1997 rights on a equal footing with those after 1997? The Minister is on record as saying that 100,000 people could enter.
Who should we believe? When I was an economic journalist, I was always very suspicious of well rounded numbers, and hon. Members may note that the Minister’s estimate of our proposed policy is precisely 10 times as big as his estimate of his own policy—which, in turn, is a nice round 10,000. Let no one accuse the Home Office of failing to decimalise.
However, we see the same cavalier attitude to figures when we look at costs. The Minister has spoken in various interviews about a potential extra cost of £1.5 billion, but during today’s Prime Minister’s questions the Prime Minister put that at £1.4 billion. The Government cannot even get their own story straight to within the nearest £100 million.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and he is making a very powerful case. Does not that illustrate that the Government are prepared to use any spurious statistical argument to avoid what I believe the British people consider to be our debt of honour to the Gurkhas? Should we not fulfil that debt of honour, and is not that what this debate is about?
I rejoice that in my constituency I have more than 400 Gurkha families. They enrich the borough educationally and in public life, and they also work, earn money and pay taxes. Gurkhas would be of enormous benefit to the United Kingdom, as they are to my constituency. The thing that really upsets me about the Government Front Benchers present is that there is a degree of inevitability about the matter, because as sure as night turns to day, the Gurkhas will win ultimately. I say to them: “Why don’t you embrace the proposal now? You wouldn’t understand a just policy or a popular policy if it were painted on your eyelids.”
The hon. Gentleman puts his point with a passion and directness that I can only admire. On 27 April, the “Channel 4 News” FactCheck rated the reliability of the figures of the Minister for Borders and Immigration as four. That was on a scale of one to five, in which the number five means that the claim
“has absolutely no basis in fact.”
In other words, the Minister’s claim is a wild guess—just about as much of a wild guess as previous forecasts on immigration from his Department, which have proved to be wildly wrong. In fact, the Home Office estimate was based on a five-year-old figure for the number of Gurkha pensioners in Nepal of 36,000. We know from parliamentary answers from the Ministry of Defence that there are currently just 26,500 Gurkha pensioners, so even under the Home Office’s own preferred methodology, the total, including dependants, would be 75,000 not 100,000, but that makes the assumption that every single one of those discharged servicemen would want to move.
I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman is still showing his ignorance of the entire subject. The 26,000 are service pensioners who are in receipt of a Gurkha pension. In addition, there are another 10,000 welfare pensioners, who served mainly during the second world war, who did not qualify for the Gurkha pension, so the figure is 36,000.
I am grateful to the Minister for pointing that out, but I have to say that the original figure given by the Ministry of Defence was 36,000, and it was on a comparable basis with the figure of 26,500 that it gave recently in a parliamentary answer. I would strongly recommend that the Minister gets the Ministry of Defence to answer parliamentary questions correctly, because clearly it has not been doing so.
Before I give way to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, from whom I very much want to hear on the issue, let me say that the key point is the attempt to take a narrow number of Gurkha pensioners and gross it up into the largest conceivable number that the Home Office can think of. Frankly, that number is nonsense on stilts. It is based on nothing at all—no polling, no questionnaires, no surveys, and certainly no knowledge of the Gurkhas’ beautiful and mountainous country, of the advanced years of some of the pensioners, who find it hard to contemplate walking to the next village, let alone taking a plane to London, and of the social status and prosperity of discharged servicemen in their own community. It is a fantasy to suppose that more than a fraction will want to settle in the UK.
May I caution the hon. Gentleman not to accept figures put out by the Ministry of Defence on the subject, simply because those of us who supported the right of the Iraqi interpreters to come to this country were consistently told by the Ministry of Defence that huge numbers of people would want to come here? In fact, very few have applied. That settlement process has gone very well indeed.
May I ask my hon. Friend to remind the House that there is a fundamental moral argument here? Under the Government’s points-based scheme, if people from abroad have money, they can come here, and in due course apply for citizenship, but not all of those who have served this country abroad can do so. It seems that under the Government’s policy, if a person lays down their cheque book for the country, they are in, but if a person is willing to lay down their life for the country, they are not.
I shall make a bit of progress, if I may.
An indication of what the true situation would be if we accepted the motion, and if the Government followed its recommendations, is provided by the number of pre-1997 Gurkhas who made their application for settlement before the Government’s deadline of October 2006. We know from what Ministers have said that there are only 1,350 outstanding Gurkha applications on the desk of the Minister for Borders and Immigration. Those are people who applied in the knowledge that discretion could be applied. Is the Minister really saying that if the right to enter were to be automatic, in line with the post-1997 situation, there would be nearly 30 times more applicants? If so, I merely thank heaven that he is not a Treasury Minister in charge of the Budget forecasts.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because it is important that we try to ascertain the numbers. As a Hampshire Member, he will be well aware not only that Gurkhas are serving in military units in my constituency of Aldershot, but that we have a very large Nepalese community, running into the thousands. Members of that community are very much valued and appreciated, but the situation is producing pressures locally. Major Dewan, the chairman of the British Gurkha Welfare Society, which is based in Farnborough in my constituency, has made it clear that of the 291 Gurkhas who are waiting to come to this country immediately, 80 per cent. will come to Farnborough. That means 1,000 people. My local authority tells me that it cannot cope. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has any plans to help us. He said that he would set out some practical propositions to deal with what might happen in particular areas of the country, where the Gurkhas are hugely valued, but where the move might cause a problem for local services—
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about immigration policy in its entirety. If he had come to some of the immigration debates that we have had, he would be aware that we Liberal Democrats have been putting forward proposals that would ensure that local authorities are better able to identify their needs, and better able to have the resources to meet them. I entirely accept that his is a legitimate concern, but I am afraid that it applies much more widely than merely to the narrow issue of the Gurkhas. For example, in areas of east London such as Newham, the NHS register is far out of line with the census results, which are used as a basis for the distribution of public finance, so I am entirely sympathetic to that point.
There is a fundamental point that a number of my hon. Friends have already made, and have anticipated. We can play the numbers game, and if we do, the Government will lose the argument, because their figures, frankly, are fantasy. However, the numbers are not the point. The point is simple: Gurkhas have given an unconditional commitment to this country. They have put their lives on the line for us time and again. More than 45,000 Gurkhas have died in the conflicts of the two world wars, fighting for our freedoms and our way of life. They represent a tradition of service to Queen and country that is almost without equal.
The Brigade of Gurkhas alone is the proud recipient of no fewer than 26 Victoria Crosses—the highest medal, of course, for valour in combat that our nation can award. Many units in the British Army have an outstanding record of valour and bravery under fire, but I have not been able to establish that there is any other unit that can match that record.
There is one issue that does not seem to get a mention at all: the impact on Nepal. We are talking about important people who are pensioners in Nepal. They bring a quality of life because of their spending power. Has the hon. Gentleman considered an impact assessment on Nepal at all, particularly if we move in the direction of Gurkhas being likely to want to settle in this country when they leave the Army? More likely than not, that will result in them not sending remittances back home. I feel that we are duty bound to take account of that. If we agree to the measures in the motion, we have to help that country’s Government.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We have to consider the implications for the developing world of our policies, not just in this area but in others, too. I am sure that that was something of which Ministers were aware when they made the settlement for those who gave service after 1997. The hon. Gentleman should also bear in mind that Nepal is not as dependent on the remittances from Gurkha soldiers as popular folklore in the UK sometimes suggests. The population of Nepal—and this was reported to Mr. Justice Blake in a submission—is about 25 million, and its gross domestic product is substantial. Workers’ remittances from Nepalese working abroad in India, the Gulf and elsewhere are very substantial indeed, so I am satisfied, to answer the hon. Gentleman directly, that if we rose to our obligations, there would be no corresponding bad effect on Nepal. His concerns can therefore be allayed.
Was it not made clear to Mr. Justice Blake that the Nepalese Government have no objection to the right being given to former Gurkha soldiers to settle in the UK?
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for that question, and I am particularly grateful for his support for the campaign because, in its early days, as the constituency MP involved, he had some doubts about the right way to proceed. He is absolutely correct that, as far as we have been able to ascertain, and as far as Mr. Justice Blake could do so, the Nepalese Government do not have concerns on this issue.
Let me conclude, as I have given way enough.
As Sir Ralph Turner MC, who fought with the Gurkhas in the first world war, wrote in the poem that has become the calling card of the men of the brigade:
“Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had a country more faithful friends than you”.
Are we really to repay that unconditional commitment with the penny-pinching approach of the accountant? Are we really the sort of people who know the price of everything, and the value of nothing—who reward loyalty with a rebuke? Are we to say that people who are prepared to fight and die for our country are not good enough to live in it? This debate is not just about the Gurkhas. It is the about the sort of people we are. The House must today find the generosity of spirit to repay, in the small way that we can, the enormous debt of gratitude that we owe to the Gurkhas. I urge hon. Members to support the motion.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“recognises that this Government is the only one since the Second World War to allow Gurkhas and their families settlement rights to the United Kingdom; notes that in 2004 the Government permitted settlement rights to Gurkhas discharged since 1997, following the transfer of the Brigade HQ from Hong Kong to the United Kingdom; further notes that under these rules around 6,000 Gurkhas and family members have been welcomed to the UK; acknowledges that the court judgement of September 2008 determined that the 1997 cut-off date was fair and rational, while seeking clarification of the criteria for settlement rights for those who retired before 1997; further notes that on 24 April the Government published new and more generous guidelines for the settlement applications of Gurkhas who retired before 1997; supports this revised guidance, which will make around 10,000 Gurkhas and family members eligible to settle in the UK; further notes that the Government undertakes actively to inform those who may be eligible in Nepal of these changes and to review the impact of the new guidance within 12 months; further notes that the contribution Gurkhas have made is already recognised by pensions paid to around 25,000 Gurkhas or their widows in Nepal that allow for a good standard of living there; and further notes that in the year 2000 Gurkha pensions were doubled and that, earlier in April 2009, in addition to an inflationary uplift of 14 per cent., those over 80 years old received a 20 per cent. increase in their pension.”
I thank the Liberal Democrats for giving the House the opportunity to discuss this important issue, not least because it gives me the opportunity to put on the record the facts and the arguments that we need to inform ourselves about this debate. Everyone in the House accepts that Gurkhas have served this country with bravery and professionalism in many conflicts. I thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) for reminding us of that record. The Gurkhas have, indeed, just returned from a highly successful deployment in Afghanistan. I hope that there is no questioning of the Government’s good intent towards the Gurkhas and their families. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind about the fact that the Government have the highest regard for the contribution of the Brigade of Gurkhas, and the contribution that it has made to Her Majesty’s armed forces over a significant period of time. Indeed, the Government can back up those words with their actions.
The whole House agrees with the hon. Gentleman about the contribution that the Gurkhas have made, and their heroic military service. However, the point that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) made is important. We should look not at what the Gurkhas have done, but at what they can do in future for this country: the great contribution that they can make to our economy and society should not be underestimated.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for protecting me from my hon. Friend from the mouth of the Thames.
Not only can the Government say that they pay tribute to the Gurkhas, but we can prove by our record that we are doing so. Let me explain the background to this case. It has been said that the guidelines that we published on Friday have undermined support for the Gurkhas, but I do not accept that that is so. Gurkhas are recruited in Nepal, and remain Nepalese citizens throughout their service with the brigade, in line with the wishes of the Nepalese Government. Before 1997, the Brigade of Gurkhas was based in Hong Kong, and following the handover of Hong Kong to China, the regimental base was moved to the UK, which put the brigade on the same footing as Commonwealth soldiers.
The service given by members of the brigade is chiefly recognised through the arrangements made to support them following their discharge. Gurkhas who served on or after 1 July 1997—the date of the handover of Hong Kong—are eligible to transfer to the armed forces pension scheme. Gurkhas who were discharged before that date, and who served for at least 15 years, receive a pension under the Gurkha pension scheme. In 2000, the value of those pensions was doubled. On top of that, the amount of the pension is regularly reviewed and increased in accordance with annual inflation in Nepal—for information, in 2009 it was 14.1 per cent. plus an additional 20 per cent. for those over 80. The pension received by ranks up to corporal is comparable to the salary of an engineer in Nepal, and it may be of interest to Members to know that the pension received by those of the rank of sergeant and above is equivalent to or greater than that of a Member of Parliament.
I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the Government’s position up to now on a number of issues. I do not think that the House would dispute the fact that the Government’s record is better than that of the Conservatives when they were in office. However, the question is whether it is good enough, and the answer out there—both around the world and through the eyes of those who are watching our debate—is not yet.
That is an entirely fair and helpful point. At least the hon. Gentleman’s party has been consistent on the Gurkhas—I have recognised that—in contrast with the Conservative party, which I shall come on to with great relish. I am setting out the position to tackle the accusation that, somehow or other, the Government have not treated the Gurkhas fairly or properly, although I accept that he has not made that accusation, and I am grateful to him. [Interruption.] May I finish setting out the background, then we can deal with the second point, which is the subject of the debate?
In addition, for those Gurkhas who did not serve long enough to qualify for a pension, the Ministry of Defence gives just over £1 million annually to the Gurkha Welfare Trust—hence the discrepancy between the two figures raised by parliamentary questions, which the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) addressed. The charity provides financial, medical and community aid to alleviate hardship among former Gurkhas. I do not accept the accusation that Gurkhas discharged before 1997 have been abandoned by the Government, and it is offensive to senior members of the armed forces who are charged with the welfare of ex-soldiers of all regiments. It is against that background that decisions on settlement rights for ex-Gurkhas must be seen. It was never the case that Gurkhas joining up did so in the belief or expectation that they would get settlement rights. There was no expectation that they would be permitted to settle in the United Kingdom on discharge, and that was not part of the terms and conditions under which they enlisted.
Notwithstanding that, the Labour Government chose in 2004 to introduce settlement rights for Gurkhas, in particular to bring their treatment into line with that of Commonwealth soldiers. Before that date, a discharged Gurkha had no route to apply to settle in the United Kingdom on the basis of service. In 2004, the then Prime Minister announced that those discharged after 1997, when the regimental base moved to the UK, would enjoy the same settlement rights as others—that is, after four years of service and if they apply for settlement within two years of their discharge.
However, the then Prime Minister went further than that. He recognised that there would be former Gurkhas who were discharged before 1997 when the base was still in Hong Kong who would have made outstanding or exceptional contributions and for whom settlement in the United Kingdom would be desirable. He therefore announced that the cases of Gurkhas discharged before 1997 would be considered on a discretionary basis. Guidance was issued to immigration case workers on how to consider applications from Gurkhas applying to settle on this basis. Since these rules were introduced, we have welcomed to our country about 6,000 Gurkhas plus their families.
Can the Minister confirm without any shadow of doubt that the decision made in 2004 to allow Gurkhas who retired from 1997 onwards was retrospective, and that his ministerial colleague is therefore wrong to say that there cannot be retrospective legislation?
I understand that point. The decision was retrospective to 1 July 1997. Those who have been granted settlement include significant numbers—3,500 from the previous period, before the 1997 cut-off, and 2,500 post-1997. The hon. Gentleman’s point is valid in that regard.
We come to the crux of the matter. The judicial review was launched against the background of that policy. It challenged both the 1997 so-called cut-off date and the guidance under which decisions were made on pre-1997 cases. The question has been asked, not least in the media today, where the guidelines come from. The answer is that they come from the instruction of the High Court to clarify the guidance pre-1997.
On the 1997 cut-off, the judge, Justice Blake, said:
“The identification of July 1997 . . . was not an arbitrary or irrational consideration.”
He went on to say that
“it cannot have been irrational or unjustifiable to distinguish July 1997 as the date after which rights as opposed to discretion to settle in the United Kingdom accrued.”
So we have a judgment from the judge that the 1997 cut-off date is fair and lawful—[Interruption. ] His exact words were “not . . . irrational”. The Government changed the situation in 2004, which has allowed 6,000 Gurkhas plus their families—some 3,500 from before 1997—to settle in this country.
No Government from 1948 to 2004 allowed the settlement of Gurkhas in the UK. From 1948, when the brigade was established on its modern-day footing, until 1997, the number of Gurkhas who were given naturalisation in the United Kingdom was five—five ex-Gurkhas. It is against that background that the motion from the official Opposition claims that the current Government have betrayed the Gurkhas and implies that we should get rid of the 1997 cut-off—something that no Government did from the second world war until Tony Blair did it in 2004.
To go on about the judgment of the Court is to miss the point completely. The judicial review is itself determined by parameters that need to be reviewed. This is a special case. I speak as one who has met the Gurkhas in Staffordshire and who has campaigned on their behalf over a number of years. If the Minister intends to run the argument that this is about judicial review and the judge’s interpretation, he is missing the wood for the trees.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. There are some in the House who have campaigned consistently to abolish the 1997 cut-off date. I think the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) have made those points, and there are others, but I raise the issue because the Government stand accused of betrayal. That is an unfair and disingenuous accusation to make, particularly against the background, which I have just outlined to the House, of the Government’s proud record on the treatment of the Gurkhas.
The Minister appears to be a little confused. He seems to say that our amendment differs in respect of the situation before 1997 from the motion tabled by the Liberal Democrats. In fact, ours is a very small amendment to the original motion. On that issue we are at one with the Liberal Democrats. I do not understand what he can see in the amendment that justifies what he has just told the House.
What I see in the motion from the Liberal Democrats is consistency and naiveté. What I see in the amendment from the hon. Gentleman is a bandwagon and inconsistency. If his party adhered to the policy of abolishing the 1997 cut-off, they had 18 years in which to do it and they did not. It ill behoves him to make the accusation that we have somehow betrayed the Gurkhas.
I shall move on to the crux of what the hon. Member for Eastleigh said. He spoke about the judicial review. Let me clarify the figures. It has been claimed and reported that the Gurkhas and their supporters believe that the new guidelines will give settlement to only about 100 Gurkhas. That figure is an estimate, from the campaign, of the total number from the outstanding 1,500 appeals—1,350 of which are from Nepal, and the remainder in country—of how many will be granted under the guidelines. It is not the estimate out of the total number of 36,000 Gurkhas plus their families to whom reference has been made, so it is disingenuous to suggest, as others have, that only 100 would qualify under the new guidelines.
The Government’s record on the Gurkhas is better than that of any previous Government. My hon. Friend is right about that. He is a just and fair-minded Minister. However, I would feel happier if he reassured the House that none of the Gurkhas who are awaiting appeals will be deported, and said that he accepts the principle behind the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), which is that although the Government have done a lot, they can improve the situation further.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that, in particular for his kind remarks, which have been much more polite than some in recent days. Let me answer him directly. Some of the outstanding applications are from ex-Gurkhas who are already in the United Kingdom and have been resident here for some time, whether lawfully or unlawfully. My officials will consider these applications on a case-by-case basis, as we are bound to do, to assess whether they fall to be granted settlement under the revised guidelines.
Subsequent to that, the Border Agency is required under the immigration rules to consider all the relevant factors of an individual’s circumstances to see whether the person should be allowed to stay in the United Kingdom. I can say to the House that I cannot foresee circumstances in which these honourable men who have served the UK so well would ever be removed from our country.
I remind the House that I have an interest as a former officer in the Brigade of Gurkhas. My concern is the unintended consequences of this decision, which, if I am called to speak, I would like to explore. Will the Minister assure the House that none of the decisions today will jeopardise the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas? If in the future those of us on both sides of the House who are championing the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas face a decision locally about supporting the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas or our local regiments, will we be equally vociferous in supporting the brigade?
The hon. Gentleman, who speaks with great knowledge, is concerned that the decisions do not have the unintended consequence of damaging the brigade. The point about the potential resource implication of this is important, and the Prime Minister referred to it earlier at Prime Minister’s Question Time. Let me be clear because the numbers have been challenged, I think unfairly. I looked at the numbers after I had met representatives of the campaign. I cannot base the advice of the Government on the “Channel 4 News” fact indicator; I have to base it on the best information available to us, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has explained the derivation of the figures. But it is an important point. The Government have never said that 100,000 people would apply and would get settlement. We have to look, as we do under all immigration law, at the potential, and our best estimate is that it is 100,000. It may be more, it may be less.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has outlined the Government’s very good record so far in dealing with this issue, and he is right to say that the heart of the dispute is about numbers—his Department’s estimates about the potential numbers and the numbers that the campaign has said would qualify under the new guidelines. There has been a lot of progress today. The Prime Minister accepted that Ministers would review the 1,300 cases and that that would be concluded by 11 June. I understand that it is now further being said that on the basis of the work carried out on those 1,300 cases, there will be a consideration of the implications of that for the new guidelines. Both those statements are welcome. I do not expect an immediate answer from my hon. Friend, but if he would go a little further and say that that process of looking at the 1,300 cases and their implications will be concluded by the time the House rises for the summer recess, I would feel far more inclined to support the Government in the Division Lobby this afternoon.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that comment; he brings us to the crux of the debate. For the benefit of those who wish to contribute to the debate, I will depart from my written speech. We have two worries about abolishing the pre-’97 cut-off date. First, we are concerned that it would set precedents for other groups, and, as one would expect, I have taken legal advice on that. We fear that the precedent would be set for people from Commonwealth countries who had served in the armed forces, and that that retrospective decision from pre-’97 would apply to other groups. We have to be clear that if a blanket decision was made on Gurkhas for pre-’97 there would be no unintended consequence for other groups who may have the right to challenge on the basis of common law and public law. With that there is the consequential impact on budgets, and the Prime Minister referred to the £1.4 billion. I do not recall using the £1.5 billion figure, but if I did I withdraw that. Our estimate is £1.4 billion, and I remind the House that that would come from the defence budget.
Secondly, if right hon. and hon. Members are honest with themselves—I hope that we all are—the truth is that none of them knows how many would apply. But as the former Chief of the Defence Staff said in The Independent on Sunday, the Government have to live in the real world, not in the world of emotion. Therefore the staged approach that we have taken, as described by the Prime Minister—this is the crux of my right hon. Friend’s proposal—
Just let me finish, then I will take an intervention. I am confident that my right hon. Friend will agree with me.
There are 1,500 cases outstanding, and we will get through those by 11 June. We have already started on that. I am more than confident that that will be significantly more than the 100 that has been estimated. We will then review the guidelines as time goes on. If our figures are wrong, we of course will change the guidelines, as we have always intended to do and as we stated in the written ministerial statement on Friday. We have made that point. My right hon. Friend is trying to push us on what we have announced as a review within 12 months—we were always clear on that—and it will become pretty clear how the guidelines are being interpreted by the time scale that he gives. I cannot give him a cast-iron guarantee, because we do not know how many applications outside of the 1,500 wil